Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran has expressed strong concerns about funding recommendations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and their “lack of emphasis on the Gulf of Mexico.”

At hearing to review FY2013 budget requests for the Department of Commerce, Cochran challenged recommendations to terminate NOAA research programs that support the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and industries that rely on healthy Gulf waters.

“I am disturbed by the lack of emphasis on the Gulf of Mexico in this budget.  I don’t know of anything that has happened in our country in recent years that is more harmful than the BP oil spill. There is still a lot of public concern about what threats remain to the vitality of fisheries and the general environment of the Gulf of Mexico,” Cochran said at the March 22 Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. 

“The research programs that we have funded in the past are designed to help keep up with the challenges to the ecological integrity of the Gulf of Mexico. It just seems to me that this research is taking a backseat to a lot of other programs by the administration,” he said. “I appreciate the budget constraints on the Commerce Department, but I am also very concerned about the priorities being set within those constraints.”

Cochran took issue with the budget proposal to terminate 18 NOAA research programs and scale back funding for dozens of other programs in order to trim almost $390 million from the Commerce Department in FY2013. The budget would eliminate the NOAA Undersea Research Program and the Regional Geospatial Modeling Grants program which involve universities in Mississippi and benefit the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

“We need to identify the research priorities that affect the Gulf of Mexico to determine what steps are needed to be taken by the private sector or government agencies to help restore good health in the Gulf of Mexico. My impression in reviewing this budget request is that this research is a very low priority in the view of this administration,” Cochran said.

Commerce Secretary John Bryson testified that the budget reflects an effort to focus the NOAA budget on core programs, like public warning systems, to accommodate budget cuts. He said there was no effort to exclude the Gulf of Mexico.“We really are committed to distribution of our funding, our science, our capabilities across the entire coastal regions of the United States. And we do care deeply about the Gulf.”

“Well, we want to see you put your money where your mouth is. That’s kind of the old way they would say down home,” Cochran retorted.“I hope you can take another look at some of the priorities of the department and see if there can be a more equitable balance between our interest in the Gulf and elsewhere along our ocean borders.”

The Commerce Department has requested $5.1 billion for NOAA in FY2013, which is a $153.9 million increase over the FY2012 funding level.

The budget recommendation to terminate the National Undersea Research Program would reduce spending by an estimated $3.98 million next year. This program supports the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST), which is led by the University of Mississippi in conjunction with the University of Southern Mississippi. NIUST provided NOAA with critical data following the BP oil spill.

The MDEQ receives funding through the Regional Geospatial Modeling Grants program, which would be eliminated to save $2.86 million. Grants to Mississippi have supported a program to create a seamless, statewide, geospatially referenced information management and mapping system.

The budget request also seeks to reduce funding for the NOAA Laboratories and Cooperative Institutes, which provides support for the Northern Gulf Institute.

NOAA represents 64 percent of the overall budget for the Commerce Department.  NOAA, however, was not mentioned among the Commerce Department’s listed priorities for FY2013. Those highlights included advanced manufacturing, increased exports and attracting investments to the United States.