How Fossil Fuel Donors Shaped the Climate Agenda of the US House Science Panel Under Lamar Smith
FREDERICKSBURG, Texas—It’s midway through fall, and cold has yet to settle over the Eckhardt family orchard. So Diane Eckhardt waits with rising apprehension.
Cold is the switch that triggers the growing sequence that by summer has limbs sagging with ripe, juicy peaches. The reliable chill season in Texas Hill Country allowed Eckhardt’s grandfather, Otto, to start the family business here in the 1930s.
But last year, with temperatures the warmest since 1939, Eckhardt’s trees produced just 10 percent of their usual yield. Now, Eckhardt worries not only about the next crop, but about the future of a business she hopes will be passed on to her niece and nephews.
“We know climate change is happening,” she said.
But while the Eckhardts face that certainty, their congressman sows uncertainty, casting doubt on the consensus science that greenhouse gases are the dominant cause of rising global temperatures, and opposing government action to curb them.
Sixteen-term Republican Lamar Smith has used his power as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee for the past five years to do battle on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. Embracing the arguments of a small group of climate contrarians, Smith acknowledges that warming is happening but says more research is needed to determine the amount and causes, and whether it does more good than harm.
“Our goal has been to rely on good science, the facts and reliable data in an effort to discover the truth,” Smith told InsideClimate News, when asked to sum up the role he has tried to play on the committee. “It is my responsibility to ensure that federal agencies rely on science that has integrity and is free from political influence.”
But Smith’s critics say he misrepresents facts, cleverly casts doubt on legitimate studies by claiming they are based on “secret data” and uses his subpoena power to help industry battle regulators and environmental groups. The result is that a panel with vast jurisdiction over all government non-military science, research and development has become an instrument of attack on mainstream climate science.
“In the field of climate science, there is legitimate concern that scientists are biased in favor of reaching predetermined conclusions,” Smith said at a hearing he chaired in March. “This invariably leads to alarmist findings that are wrongly reported as facts.”
Things weren’t always this way. Under both Democratic and moderate Republican leadership, the science committee since the late 1970s had educated lawmakers and the public about the threats posed by rising temperatures caused by human activity.
But in a case study of the power of fossil fuel interests to shape government policy, the industry’s money and alliances with conservative think tanks and advocacy groups transformed the committee’s membership and supported the rise of Smith, son of an old oil and ranching family in South Texas.
Today, “we’re in total denial,” says the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, fellow Texan Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas. Instead of looking at the evidence and making policy recommendations on climate—as once happened—the committee is “pretending to be oblivious,” she said.
“When you look at the [campaign] contribution list, it becomes very clear” that the forces that oppose regulation are calling the shots, she said.
Smith disputes the role of fossil fuel money in shaping his agenda, or the committee’s. The oil and gas industry has been Smith’s biggest contributor, with $764,000 in donations over the course of his 30-year career in Congress. But Smith points out that the industry’s share is just a small portion of his overall contributions—about 5 percent of the $14 million he has raised since the 1989 election cycle.
“I’m supported by a wide variety of individuals and industries, including the energy sector, which employs 400,000 Texans statewide,” Smith told InsideClimate News. As former chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, he has worked on issues ranging from immigration to patent reform, including a high-profile effort against internet piracy that had the support of the movie and media businesses, the pharmaceutical industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Smith, 70, has announced he will retire after his term as chairman ends next year. But many believe his legacy will be lasting. The committee under Smith has “has reinforced the view that everything must be partisan, and you’ve got to choose sides,” said Andrew Rosenberg, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that has been one of Smith’s targets. “It sends a message that science is partisan, too.”
‘Secret Science’ Charge Returns
Even before Smith took over the committee, he signed a letter in December 2012 calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to release the “secret data” behind proposed air pollution regulations. “It is likely that the majority of benefits from all federal regulations are grounded in data sets that have never been available to the public,” the letter said.
The “secret science” charge was false. At issue was a study published by Harvard researchers in 1993 showing that fine soot pollution, largely from burning fossil fuels, shortened lives. The researchers had obtained personal health information from 22,000 participants on the promise of confidentiality. In 1997, when the Clinton administration was finalizing the first-ever air quality standards on fine soot, protesters in white lab coats appeared on Capitol Hill holding signs that said, “Harvard, release the data!” The protesters were hired by a group called Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded by the Koch oil brothers and which also received funding from the Exxon Foundation that year.
Since that time, hundreds of studies have affirmed that fine soot causes respiratory and cardiovascular disease and death. And a panel jointly funded by the EPA and the auto industry received access to the Harvard validated the original study.
But 16 years after the white lab coat protests, Smith was reviving the “secret science” charge just as the Obama administration was finalizing a plan to tighten the fine soot regulations, a move vehemently opposed by coal-fired power generators and oil refiners.
Eight months after assuming the chairmanship, Smith slapped the EPA with the first subpoena that the House science committee had issued in 21 years. The subpoena demanded the EPA release data from the Harvard study and a separate American Cancer Society study in sufficient detail “to allow one-to-one mapping of each pollutant and ecological variable to each subject.”
Smith later drafted legislation called the Secret Science Reform Act to require that the EPA base its regulatory decisions only on scientific data that is publicly available and reproducible. Science advocacy groups say the restriction would curb all regulation to protect public health because health research routinely relies on confidential patient information. The bill is “based on a misunderstanding of how science works,” said Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at a hearing this year.
Smith’s legislation was approved by the House in March with a new name: the HONEST ACT (the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017).
Political Operatives Replace Scientists
Smith’s powers were greatly expanded in 2015, when the House leadership allowed him unilateral subpoena power. He would issue 25 subpoenas over the next two years, against scientists, regulators, environmental groups and even state attorneys general.
Smith also hired seven staffers from the aggressive House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The panel’s probes on Benghazi, IRS treatment of conservative groups, solar manufacturer Solyndra’s bankruptcy and other issues had provided fodder for Republican attacks on the Obama administration. “In 2015, it became increasingly apparent that the Obama administration was advancing a one-sided, unconstitutional agenda,” Smith told InsideClimate News. “We needed to bring in staff who had strong backgrounds in conducting oversight of government agencies and getting them to answer questions.”
The science committee majority staff, which had more than a dozen Ph.D. scientists during the George W. Bush administration, now was loaded with political operatives like Mark Marin, who had been deputy staff director for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Joe Brazauskas, who had been a law clerk for the National Mining Association before serving as a counsel on Issa’s House Oversight committee.
Warming ‘Pause’: Smith Investigates NOAA
In June 2015, Smith and his team targeted research published by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The paper in the peer-reviewed journal Science undercut a key talking point of climate science deniers: It found that there had been no pause in global warming over the past two decades.
Eddie Bernice Johnson fired back at her committee’s chairman in a letter: “The only thing you accused NOAA of doing is engaging in climate science—i.e., doing their jobs.”
MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel believes he gained insight into Smith and his approach after an exchange a couple of years ago. It began with a discussion on a topic on which they agreed—how the U.S. had fallen behind Europe in numerical weather prediction. Emanuel took the opportunity to give Smith a copy of a primer he had written for non-scientists on climate science and risk.
A few days later, Emanuel got a call from Smith, who wanted to talk about the book. “He struck me as a very astute man,” Emanuel said. “Clearly he had read the book very thoroughly or had been thoroughly briefed on it.
“He proceeded politely to ask sharp questions. Could this be wrong? Could it be not as bad? A lot of the questions were about uncertainty,” Emanuel recalled. At first the scientist felt he was making headway with the congressman, a hope that was quashed the next time he heard Smith publicly dismissing climate science. “In hindsight, I think I was unwittingly a coach, helping him armor himself against reasonable arguments.”
“There’s nothing stupid about Lamar Smith,” said Emanuel. “He’s not uniformly anti-science. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the science. He struck me as a lawyer for the defense, who knows his defendant is guilty, but is bound by law or honor or legal code to defend.”
Subpoena Power Unleashed
Smith’s tactics to defend fossil fuel energy created legal worries for the EPA, which was battling the industry in court. Officials feared that the constant document requests by Smith would help industry lawyers obtain otherwise confidential material that could be used against the agency in court.
In letters to Smith, EPA repeatedly raised its concern about the risk of releasing documents in cases involving the Clean Water Act, the regional haze pollution standards, a decision over a controversial copper mine decision in Alaska, and others.
Smith’s most dramatic rush to the legal defense of the fossil fuel industry was his unprecedented move last year to issue subpoenas to two state attorneys general and several nongovernmental advocacy groups over the states’ climate change fraud investigation of Exxon. He accused the attorneys general of colluding with environmentalists, violating Exxon’s free speech rights and chilling private sector science funding.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, refused to comply with the subpoena, which he said “oversteps the boundaries of federalism, separation of powers, and the committee’s own jurisdiction.”
Smith disagreed. “The science committee has jurisdiction over all non-military, non-medical research and development,” he said in the email to InsideClimate News. “We had an obligation to the scientific community and the American people to find out whether the attorneys general have intentionally intimidated researchers who disagree with them.”
Even though Smith did not obtain documents, Exxon cited the mere fact of his inquiry to give weight to its effort last year to derail the probe. Exxon picked up Smith’s argument that the attorneys general were appointing “themselves to decide what is valid and what is invalid regarding climate change.” For that reason and on multiple constitutional grounds, Exxon lawyers asked a federal judge in Texas to dismiss the investigations.
Although the Texas judge declined to rule, he embraced Exxon and Smith’s contention that the New York and Massachusetts investigations were intended to “squelch public discourse by a private company that may not toe the same line as these two attorneys general.” The case has been transferred to New York federal court, where a judge has yet to rule.
Back Home in the 21st District
For the most part, Smith hasn’t had to address the climate issue back home, even though polls show that a and Texas has suffered more severe climate and weather disasters since 1980 than any other state.
Only last year did a Democratic opponent, Tom Wakely, try to make climate change a major campaign issue. Smith won with 57 percent of the vote—the first time he had fallen below the 60 percent mark.
For Diane Eckhardt, it’s hard to ignore what’s happening. She kicks up an orange cloud of dust as she walks through her family’s orchard at sunset with her 85-year-old father, Donald, and her 9-year-old nephew, Quentin.
Eckhardt, 43, who has a degree in biology, tries to keep politics and peaches separate. But it’s clear she disagrees with policymakers like Smith whose distrust of the science imperils her family business and its future.
“We have to pay attention to climate science because the science is there,” she said. “We have to extend outside of our ideologies to protect what we have.”
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December 9, 2017 at 11:04PM