Texas Congressman Under Fire for Defending ExxonMobil in Climate Change Probe

Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, speaks during a House Science Committee hearing to review NASA's 2017 budget.
NASA/Bill Ingalls
Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, speaks during a House Science Committee hearing to review NASA’s 2017 budget.

Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith is putting the interests of ExxonMobil Corp. and the fossil fuel industry before those of his constituents, a Democratic U.S. senator and representatives from environmental groups alleged Monday.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, along with representatives from 350.org and Greenpeace, criticized Smith for his decision to subpoena the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), two state attorneys general and several environmental groups that are investigating Irving-based ExxonMobil’s record on climate change.

Smith, who chairs the House Science Committee, issued the subpoenas in response to investigations by the SEC and the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York into whether ExxonMobil defrauded its shareholders and the public by withholding information about the impact of climate change as far back as the 1970s.

During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Whitehouse called Smith’s subpoenas “unprecedented” and “thick with conflict of interest.” A climate change “skeptic,” Smith has issued six subpoenas in the last three years, more than in the committee’s previous 58-year history. During his career, Smith has also received close to $700,000 from the oil and gas industry.

“Representative Smith is not just here doing something unprecedented to obstruct state officials in the performance of their duties, he’s doing it on behalf of the very subject of their investigation,” Whitehouse said.

Smith has argued that the state investigations violate ExxonMobil’s First Amendment right to voice the company’s opinion about climate change, but Whitehouse said there’s a difference between free speech and fraud.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, joined environmental activists at a press conference in Austin on Monday.
John Wright
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, said Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith’s defense of Exxon “reeks of conflict of interest.”

“That is the question that the attorneys general are pursuing, and for the representative to use his powers of office to try to interfere with that crosses the bounds of federalism, reeks of conflict of interest and completely mistakes the pertinent law,” Whitehouse said.

A representative from Smith’s office couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Molly Rooke, an activist with 350.org, also criticized Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for using taxpayer dollars to help defend ExxonMobil in court against investigations into the company’s climate change record. Earlier this year, Paxton’s office submitted a brief in support of a lawsuit ExxonMobil filed to block the Virgin Islands’ subpoena for decades of the company’s records.

“Exxon has robbed us of a generation’s worth of action on climate,” Rooke said. “Climate change is here now, and those who defend companies like Exxon at the expense of our communities and our climate are just as responsible for the intensity of the climate crisis as the fossil fuel companies who lied in the first place.”

A representative from Paxton’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Naomi Ages, director of Greenpeace’s climate liability project, called for the U.S. Department of Justice to join the SEC and the attorneys general in investigating the oil and gas giant. Ages also said that instead of defending Exxon, Smith should be investigating what other oil and gas companies knew about climate change — and when.

“We all know who he works for, and it’s not the people who elected him,” Ages said of Smith. “It’s time to hold Exxon, the oil and gas industry and the politicians protecting their profits over the people of this country accountable.”

Following the news conference, Whitehouse joined scientists from Texas universities for a panel discussion about their research on the effects of climate change in the state.

John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Published at 5:02 pm CST
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