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Leon Kaye headshot

Congressional Climate Science Witch Hunt Begins ‘Constitutional Obligation’ Hearings

By Leon Kaye

Last week, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, held a hearing to investigate whether the Committee has the authority to investigate state attorneys general and NGOs.

State attorneys general, including those of New York and Massachusetts, along with environmental NGOs including Greenpeace and the Union for Concerned Scientists, are investigating ExxonMobil and other energy companies about their research on climate change and whether hiding findings resulted in shareholder and consumer fraud.

Smith’s subpoenas, which demanded documents and emails from NGOs and state attorneys, were met with a mix of silence and incredulity. Smith in turn refused to meet with any of the attorneys general or environmental groups, and scheduled Wednesday’s hearings in order to assert the Committee’s right to issue such broad subpoenas.

Smith and his allies claim such an investigation is needed to protect the First Amendment rights of companies, such as ExxonMobil, which he claims are unfairly targeted by rogue attorneys and special interest groups. Opponents say Smith is grandstanding and engaging in a 21st-century version of the Red Scare.

And few are immune to what Lawrence M. Krauss, a scientist based at Arizona State University, describes as Smith’s “anti-science rampage.” When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) authored a paper that denied any “pause” in climate change, its director, Kathryn Sullivan, a former U.S. Navy Captain and astronaut, received one of Smith’s first subpoenas. And therein lies Smith’s ongoing climate science witch hunt, fueled in part by donations from the oil and gas industry.

The Science Committee’s ranking member, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, called Smith out for what she says is overreach. “This hearing appears to be the culmination of a politically motivated ‘oversight’ agenda that has been applauded by oil, gas, and mining interests,” Johnson said in a public statement. “[It is] broadly condemned by the public, the media and the independent scientific community across the country and around the world.”

Johnson claimed that in the 58-year history of the Science Committee, it used its oversight authority to identify technical and scientific problems and work in a bipartisan fashion to find solutions. She also accused Smith of using the Science Committee as a political tool, while treating scientists such as Sullivan with contempt. Furthermore, Johnson blasted Smith as a tool of special interests -- incidents range from using subpoenas to demand health records in order to disprove that air pollution is bad for public health, to demanding documents from the EPA to assist a foreign mining company as it sued the U.S. government over environmental regulations.

In any event, Johnson asserts that the First Amendment rights of ExxonMobil, or any company, are not protected when it comes to fraud. “The law is clear – fraud is not protected by the First Amendment,” Johnson said. “If any companies in the oil industry defrauded the public or their shareholders in their well-documented disinformation campaign on global warming, then that is a matter for the state AGs and the courts, not the Committee on Science.”

Professor Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore also pointed out that neither the Senate nor the House has ever subpoenaed a state attorney general in the 227-year history of Congress. Tiefer noted that investigations under state law by attorneys general fall under police powers reserved to the states without any federal interference.

Other expert witnesses called to testify, in the words of writer Scott K. Johnson, were invited by Smith "to tell him what he's doing is just fine." They gave Smith what he wanted by saying the New York attorney general was in on a corrupt deal with George Soros and environmental groups. Writing for The Hill, former Congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina described the hearing as "sticking its nose where it doesn't belong."

Do not expect this sideshow to end any time soon, especially in a presidential election year. House Republicans have long cried foul over President Barack Obama’s policies on climate change, public lands and oceans. And despite a two-year slump in energy prices, companies such as ExxonMobil still have the heft in their checkbooks to buy plenty of friends in Congress.

Image credit: House Science Committee

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye