Podcast: The Detail

Paying twice for weather forecasts

The Detail today looks at both the Commerce Commission investigation into anti-competitive behaviour from our weather services, and why we have two government-funded bodies producing essentially the same product. 

There are storm clouds hanging over the future of New Zealand’s weather forecasting services.

The Commerce Commission is investigating anti-competitive behaviour at MetService and NIWA – the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

The stoush began when privately-owned WeatherWatch complained about the lack of access to weather data, saying the cost of buying the information from the weather agencies is too high given taxpayer dollars funded it in the first place.

But there’s another issue here, and one that independent weather expert Murray Boardman says is a much bigger one than anti-competitive behaviour.

He questions why we are funding two government bodies to produce two daily weather forecasts, describing it as “strange and unique”.

Boardman points out we don’t have two fire services, justice departments or conservation departments. “But we have two weather forecasters, and the reasons for that have not been fully answered.”

Until that’s fixed, he says, the so-called anti-competitive behaviour won’t be resolved.

The government funding for both NIWA and MetService is complex. NIWA is a Crown Research Institute and is partly funded by commercial interests, as well as science grants. It gets $49m in taxpayer dollars through the Strategic Science Investment Fund.

MetService is a State Owned Enterprise and gets $24m for a weather safety service contract, via the Ministry of Transport. (That’s because meteorological sciences were primarily attached to the aviation industry.)

That’s nearly $73m in total but it’s not clear exactly how much is for weather forecasts.

Boardman told The Detail’s Sharon Brettkelly it’s unclear when NIWA encroached into MetService’s territory of weather forecasting, expanding its purpose from researching water and the atmosphere.

He says the Government has no understanding of the double-up, and having two entities providing the same service could have dire consequences.

“There will come a time… when the two services will have divergent forecasts at a time where it won’t beneficial to New Zealanders,” he says.

“And it could be subtle differences to the forecast that could be life-threatening.”

Boardman says the Government needs to acknowledge having two state-owned entities providing the same service is ineffective.

He says the anti-competitive behaviour keeping private forecasters at bay only exists because MetService and the much larger NIWA provide the same service.

He gives three possible scenarios as options to change that.

One is a better delineation between forecasting and climate research; make MetService the only organisation that does forecasting and state that NIWA does climate research and only seasonal, not daily, forecasts.

The second one is merging NIWA and MetService. The third one is that NIWA loses its atmospheric research component and that is taken up by the MetService, which happens in Australia and the UK.

Whichever option is chosen, Boardman says it’s critical that we have clarity.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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