In the latest installment of an increasingly contentious battle over ExxonMobil’s climate change record, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith sought to justify the House Committee on Science’s authority to investigate state attorneys general and environmental groups at a Wednesday hearing.
“The question we explore today isn’t partisan. It’s institutional,” he said. “What is the scope of Congress’ oversight powers?”
During his three years as head of the science committee, Smith, a self-proclaimed “climate semi-skeptic,” has issued six subpoenas — more than the number filed previously in the committee’s 58-year history. Last year, Smith alleged that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had tampered with global temperature data and subpoenaed communications among the agency’s scientists.
In May, Smith subpoenaed the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general and nine environmental groups for their internal communications, suggesting that there was evidence of inappropriate collusion between the parties in their efforts to look into what Exxon knew about climate change.
Still, Smith and other GOP committee members’ key argument in the Exxon investigation has been that the state attorneys’ investigations would have a chilling effect on future climate research.
“The committee is concerned that such investigations may have an adverse impact on federally-funded scientific research,” Smith said in his opening statement. If the investigations interfere in scientists’ ability to conduct research then Smith suggested that the committee look into appropriating funds “to even out any such imbalances caused as a result.”
The committee took up the ongoing disagreement between Exxon and its Republican allies in the House, and Democratic attorneys general who want to prosecute the company for fraud. At the heart of the disagreement: Whether Exxon understood the effects of fossil fuels on climate change decades ago but decided to withhold that information from the public and its shareholders.
Tipped off by the release of internal memos from Exxon’s climate scientists warning about the effects of global warming in the 1970s and 1980s, attorneys general from New York and Massachusetts subpoenaed the oil and gas giant. Backed by House members and Republican attorneys general, including Ken Paxton, Exxon has fought the allegations, arguing that the investigations are an infringement on the company’s free speech.
That triggered Smith’s own set of subpoenas, which have been criticized by legal scholars and members of the scientific community as a fishing expedition. In a letter sent to Smith, more than a dozen First Amendment attorneys and legal scholars called Smith’s subpoenas “misguided” and “unenforceable.”
The House science committee, which was established in 1958, has jurisdiction over federal agencies involved in non-defense research and development. As such, Democratic members of the committee and the respondents to Smith’s subpoena say that the investigations are a gross overreach and the committee’s authority does not extend to state attorneys general or non-governmental organizations such as the environmental groups 350.org and Union of Concerned Scientists.
Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who leads the minority on the committee, called Smith’s probe the “latest embarrassment” and “the culmination of a politically motivated ‘oversight’ agenda that has been applauded by oil, gas and mining interests.”
Johnson also pointed out the apparent irony in Smith’s defense of Exxon’s First Amendment rights, while subpoenaing the attorneys general and environmental groups.
“I hope all the members of the majority think long and hard about the precedent the chairman is setting here, and whether you’d like Democratic members to take these same kinds of actions against certain conservative-minded groups when Democrats are in the majority,” she said at the hearing.