Friday, July 29, 2016
Congressman investigates global warming investigators
Mild-mannered San Antonio Congressman Lamar Smith faced some solid stiff-arming this week from the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.
Two weeks ago Rep. Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, sent extraordinary subpoenas to both attorneys general.
He demanded that they turn over any and all correspondence, emails and other records concerning their staff’s communications with environmental organizations in connection with an investigation into Exxon Mobil.
On Tuesday, both Massachusetts AG Maura Healey and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told Smith they had no intention of complying.
Both AGs are investigating allegations that as early as 25 years ago Exxon scientists knew — and even published scientific papers acknowledging — the role of fossil fuels in promoting possibly “catastrophic” climate change.
Yet the corporation reportedly cut back on its research budget in the 1990s and started doling out millions to so-called “think tanks” and other organizations engaged in climate change denial.
For example, according to a spokesman for the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, Exxon Mobil gave the self-described “nonprofit research organization” $736,500 between 1998 and 2006.
A little bit about the Heartland Institute:
Before taking up climate change denial, the Heartland Institute mainly focused on denying problems with big tobacco.
One 1999 letter to a Philip Morris executive thanked the company for its support and asked for an increase because Heartland “does many things that benefit Philip Morris' bottom line.”
A fun footnote: San Antonian Jeff Judson, who ran against State Rep. Joe Straus earlier this year, served on the Heartland board of directors for years.
He is still listed on its website as a senior fellow.
The seriousness of Heartland’s “research” and scientific discourse may be judged by its 2012 billboard argument against climate change.
The 2012 billboard featured a scary photo of Unibomber Ted Kaczynski with the message: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?”
The New York and Massachusetts attorneys general are investigating whether Exxon, later Exxon Mobil, misled the public and their investors by downplaying the consequences of gasoline and other carbon fuels, despite the evidence presented by their own scientists.
Exxon Mobil has denied the charge.
“The great irony here is that we’ve acknowledged the risks of climate change for more than a decade, have supported a carbon tax as the better policy option and spent more than $7 billion on research and technologies to reduce emissions,” a spokesman told the New York Times last month.
But the potential parallel to the tobacco companies, who were found to have lied about the harms of tobacco despite what their scientists told them, must concern Exxon Mobil.
Lawsuits by states led to $246 billion in judgments against tobacco companies.
Representative Smith denies he is riding to Exxon Mobil’s rescue.
He has accused the attorneys general of hiding “their coordination with environmental groups.”
He said these groups seek “to act under the color of law to persuade attorneys general to use their prosecutorial powers to stifle scientific discourse, intimidate private entities and individuals, and deprive them of their First Amendment rights and freedoms.”
Exxon Mobil, like tobacco companies before them, argue that their public statements on scientific matters are protected by the First Amendment.
The attorneys general have responded that speech is protected, but fraud isn’t.
Ironically, Smith’s accusation that the states’ investigations are intended to “stifle scientific discourse” echoes charges made against Smith himself.
Last year Smith geared up a committee investigation, including massive subpoenas, of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after they published a paper in the Journal Science rejecting the notion that global warming has slowed.
Smith said a couple of whistleblowers said the study was rushed for political reasons.
To the scientists and to some of Smith’s congressional colleagues, the subpoenas were a fishing expedition, and an act of intimidation.
Apparently for Smith, scientists are suspect. Corporations aren’t.