House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith Defends ExxonMobil, Subpoenas Union of Concerned Scientists: An FAQ

July 13, 2016
NASA HQ/CC BY (Flickr)
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

Today House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith sent congressional subpoenas to several attorneys general and nonprofit organizations—including the Union of Concerned Scientists—demanding access to correspondence among these groups and between these groups and the attorneys general offices.

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, has issued subpoenas to several state attorneys general and nonprofits, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, has issued subpoenas to several state attorneys general and nonprofits, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This is the first Congress in which the House Science Committee Chair has universal subpoena power, meaning that he/she does not need to work with or even inform the minority party before issuing subpoenas. UCS raised concerns about this expansion of power early on, and the record shows that indeed those concerns were warranted as the Chairman Smith’s actions have proven to be an abuse of power.

Why are the attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil?

Recent investigations by InsideClimate News and the LA Times, along with advocacy groups, have revealed documents showing that ExxonMobil scientists knew about climate change and its global risks by the late 1970s and possibly even the 1960s. The company appears to have been at the cutting edge of climate research, and yet chose to wage a decades-long disinformation campaign rather than warn the public and its own investors of climate change risks. Several state attorneys general (AGs) have launched investigations into whether or not these actions constitute fraud.

Doesn’t ExxonMobil have the right to free speech?

The First Amendment gives wide protections but is not absolute. The AGs are investigating fraud. As New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has said, “The First Amendment does not give you the right to commit fraud.”

Is UCS working with AGs on their ExxonMobil investigation?

UCS has long investigated the role that the fossil fuel industry has played in undermining public understanding of climate science. Here is a timeline documenting these activities starting from 2007. UCS has provided the AGs with publicly available research and information produced by UCS scientists and others on climate science, climate impacts, and the role of fossil fuel companies in undermining science.

Who is working with Lamar Smith in trying to undermine the AG investigations?

It’s not entirely clear, as, ironically, Chairman Smith has not been terribly forthcoming with information about who he’s talking to. That said, the first letters from Chairman Smith were sent the same day as the New York Times printed a full-page advertisement sponsored by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free-market think tank that has been funded by ExxonMobil and has regularly misrepresented climate science.

Is Chairman Smith protecting the ability of scientists and companies to pursue scientific research?

The chairman and other members of Congress keep claiming that they are protecting the right to “fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution.” But as we continue to point out, our concerns are not with the conduct of research—but rather with how fossil fuel companies have misrepresented and cast doubt upon such research, and in doing so, may have misled their investors and the public.

By attempting to interfere in these investigations, the chairman is directly undermining efforts to hold accountable those who intentionally misrepresent or suppress scientific information. His actions are contrary to the very principles he claims to hold dear.

Is UCS being transparent about its activities?

UCS has been working for years, publicly, to expose activities by the fossil fuel industry and their allies that undermine climate science, mislead the public, and shield oil companies from accountability. We’ve put together a timeline here.

Recent work by UCS and by major media outlets have exposed a long history on the part of oil companies of concealing what they know about climate change. We have met with state attorneys general and their staff to provide them with relevant information. Our efforts on this have been open and transparent, widely available online and in public forums. Our work to hold fossil fuel companies accountable is an exercise of our Constitutionally-protected rights of speech, association and petition. Compelling disclosure of private communications would violate those rights.

In addition to having extensive publicly available material on our work, UCS offered to brief the Science Committee on our work to hold companies accountable for their actions. A subpoena is at odds with Chairman Smith’s request for dialogue.

How else has Lamar Smith used subpoena power?

At the beginning of this Congress, new House of Representatives rules gave Chairman Smith an unusual and unprecedented level of power to issue subpoenas. He has been empowered to use subpoenas unilaterally, without consultation with the minority. We raised concern about how these powers would be used in January 2015, long before we were targeted, because of the potential for abuse.

Last fall, Chairman Smith subpoenaed scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over a peer-reviewed Science article on climate change they authored. NOAA offered to brief the Committee and sent their study and methodologies, but Chairman Smith demanded years’ worth of internal communications from the authors, claiming wrongdoing without evidence. The science community was united in expressing opposition to the way Chairman Smith carried out his inquiry, including a letter from seven major scientific societies stating “grave concern” that his actions could “threaten to inhibit the free exchange of ideas” and “have a chilling effect” on scientific research. The subpoena is still in effect but has not been enforced.

More broadly, this Congress has been aggressive in its use of subpoenas and investigatory power without evidence of wrongdoing, leading many to see these tactics as political weapons rather than legitimate oversight. This has the potential to erode the power of congressional subpoenas if they are seen as political tools instead of investigatory tools.

What has been the communication between the committee and the groups it is targeting?

On May 18 Chairman Smith and 12 members of the US House Science Committee sent request letters to UCS and other nonprofits demanding that they hand over all email correspondence with 17 attorneys general offices and other nonprofit organizations. UCS rejected the request. In an earlier blog post, I put the letters in context: they are an abuse of power and part of a coordinated effort to derail the attorneys general investigations into ExxonMobil’s actions. On June 17, Chairman Smith sent UCS, other nonprofits, and attorneys general a second letter repeating the intrusive demand first made in May, and citing case law related to the McCarthy/House Un-American Activities Committee as justification. UCS again rejected this request.

On July 6, Chairman Smith sent a third letter, threatening to subpoena the recipients but inviting a dialogue. UCS responded to the third letter and offered to brief the committee. But Chairman Smith then proceeded to issue a subpoena within hours of our offer. These actions suggest that this investigation is more about public relations and political theater than fact finding. UCS President Ken Kimmell has responded with a statement, noting that “We won’t be intimidated by this tactic and will continue to provide states, our colleagues and the public with the best available scientific evidence on climate change and other critical issues.”