The Bush administration is considering less expensive options to putting up six new weather satellites equipped to monitor global warming, the White House's science adviser said Thursday.
The administration has been planning to cut back the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, to four satellites and omitting or downgrading the quality of most global warming monitors on them because of mushrooming costs and technical glitches in the program.
"Our concern here is that we move ahead ... whether they're using the NPOESS approach or some other satellite approach," Jack Marburger told the House Science and Technology subcommittee that oversees the $12.5 billion project. He said the administration has not ruled out staying with the six-satellite plan.
The dual-purpose satellites are a joint project of the Pentagon, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Associated Press reported Monday that NASA and NOAA reports in December and January to the White House recommended fully restoring the program to six satellites and all of the planned global monitoring sensors.
"The recent loss of climate sensors ... places the overall climate program in serious jeopardy," the reports said.
The project, which dates to 1994, was originally estimated at $6.5 billion. After the costs grew more than 25 percent, the Pentagon recommended putting up only four satellites and eliminating most of the climate data-gathering instruments on them.
Most of the satellites had been scheduled to launch starting next year to replace aging satellites, but the launches have been delayed to between 2013 and 2026.
The House subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, complained about the White House's pace in deciding what to do.
"Without decisive action and leadership, we will lose continuity in the multi-decadal data sets that are central to our understanding of global warming," Lampson said. "In fact, some breaches in data collection may be unavoidable at this point."
Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., agreed that Congress and the Bush administration "cannot sit back and relax or we risk yet another four-year delay or doubling of costs."
Congress's Government Accountability Office said the $12.5 billion price tag assumes only four satellites without the climate sensors will be launched. But it warned that price also is likely to rise if there are continued delays.
"This executive-level footdragging is unacceptable," said David Powner, a GAO technology management specialist. The program is "far from being out of the woods," he said.
Marburger said the diminished plans for the satellite system "still satisfies many climate data requirements" even though "the potential impacts to the climate science program continue to raise concerns."
Inglis, in an interview with the AP, said Marburger assured him earlier this week that Bush's opposition to mandatory caps on greenhouse gases is not a factor in the decision-making on the satellites' scientific capability. Inglis acknowledged he'd worried about that possibility.
"I want the science to take us wherever it will lead," he said.
The NASA-NOAA reports to the White House said U.S. climate scientists will now have to rely instead on European satellites to gather data about glaciers, ice caps, sea levels, surface radiation, water vapor, snow cover and atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Plans to restore one climate sensor for measuring ozone is possible but would likely delay the satellites' launch further, Air Force Brig. Gen. Susan Mashiko, who directs the satellite program, told the hearing.
Lampson said the ozone sensors are required to fulfill U.S. obligations under the Montreal Protocol, a United Nations treaty first signed in 1989 to deal with the ozone hole over Antarctica.