ExxonMobil research driving rift on Capitol Hill

House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2012.
House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2012. AP

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee used to be a place where science geeks talked tech. Now it’s more like a throw down.

Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who disputes the science behind climate change, is going after the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts and eight environmental groups for their investigations into global warming. In July, Smith issued subpoenas to demand information about their inquiries into whether Irving, Texas-based ExxonMobil hid its research – some dating back decades – into the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and misled the public.

Scientists agree that the burning of fossil fuels results in greenhouse gas emissions that damage the environment.

Smith, who often is at odds with Democratic ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, also of Texas, got a stonewall response. The attorneys general and the nonprofit groups last week refused to comply, setting up a potential contempt-of-Congress faceoff when lawmakers return in September.

I think this is an abuse of power. This committee shouldn’t be involved in this investigation in the first place.

Ken Kimmell, president, Union of Concerned Scientists

“The committee is disappointed that the New York and Massachusetts Attorneys General and the environmental activist organizations behind the AGs’ efforts have refused to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas,” Smith said in a statement last week. “Their noncompliance only raises additional questions. As discussions with the individual subpoena recipients move forward, the committee will consider using all tools at its disposal to further its investigation.” Smith declined an interview on the issue.

If Smith pursues the contempt charge, the House panel would have to vote on it, and if it was approved, the entire House would have to vote, as well.

Democrats are ready for battle. Johnson did not respond to the refusal of the attorneys general and environmental groups to comply. Her spokeswoman Kristin Kopshever said the congresswoman stands by her sharp rebuke of Smith when he issued the subpoenas.

Johnson and several other Democratic members said in July that “we strongly condemn” the subpoenas, which they call “unlawful.”

“As we and the various targets of these subpoenas have repeatedly pointed out, these actions are plainly unconstitutional. The majority’s illegitimate actions set a very dangerous precedent and are one more step toward solidifying this committee’s unfortunate new reputation as a committee of witch hunts,” said the statement.

Johnson had earlier warned Smith in letters and statements about his “abuse of power.” The chairman’s unilateral power to issue subpoenas is relatively new; it was granted to several committees when the current Congress began in January 2015.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is in many ways the flashpoint of the opposition to Smith. He held a press conference in March with former Vice President Al Gore, who warned about global warming in his books, including “Earth in the Balance” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” and six other attorneys general, all Democrats, to promote their investigations into climate change. Schneiderman says that ExxonMobil may have committed fraud by not revealing what it knew about climate change – something the company has denied it did.

When Schneiderman was subpoenaed, his office complained in a statement that “a small group of radical Republican House members is trying to block a serious law enforcement investigation into potential fraud at Exxon.”

Asked about the status of the investigation, New York attorney general spokesman Nick Benson said by phone, “Our state investigation is ongoing. We’ll have no further comment.”

ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers said the energy giant is watching Smith and the congressional action but is not directly involved. “We don’t have anything to do with what he’s doing,” he said. “We’re responding to requests for information.”

The energy company sued the attorneys general of the Virgin Islands and Massachusetts in federal court for the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth when they were subpoenaed. The Virgin Islands decided to withdraw its subpoena and Exxon dropped its suit, but the Massachusetts case is ongoing.

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the groups who received subpoenas, said in an interview, “We think this is an abusive investigation designed to intimidate the attorneys general and our groups from participating in investigating whether ExxonMobil violated state laws.”