Calling it a “damaging and pointless exercise,” the 11-member Massachusetts congressional delegation is urging US Representative Lamar Smith, a climate change skeptic, to stop pressuring state Attorney General Maura Healey over her investigation into whether Exxon Mobil knew decades ago of the link between fossil fuels and global warming.
In a letter to the Texas Republican Thursday, the delegation — led by Representative Katherine Clark and Senator Elizabeth Warren — denounced subpoenas Smith sent to Healey, the New York attorney general, and environmental groups as “an unprecedented, invalid exercise of congressional authority” meant to harass their recipients.
Warren has been using her Twitter account in recent weeks to criticize Smith for what she characterizes as his intimidation tactics.
“This is an outrageous abuse of Congressional subpoena power to threaten a state AG and help a campaign contributor,” Warren tweeted, a reference to the nearly $700,000 Smith has received from the fossil-fuel industry in recent years, including about $20,000 from Texas-based Exxon.
The letter is the latest volley in a political and legal battle between the subpoenas’ targets and Smith, who chairs the House science committee, a position that gives him a key role in crafting the country’s science and technology policy.
In July, Smith issued subpoenas to Healey, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and numerous environmental groups, claiming they are engaging in a coordinated effort to “threaten legitimate scientific debate about climate change” with their investigations. Smith contends Healey and others are trying to squelch the free speech rights of researchers who have alternative views on climate change.
Healey and others are looking into whether Exxon intentionally misled the public and investors about the impact of climate change. They also allege Exxon tried to block government efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Healey and Schneiderman have refused to comply with the subpoenas, arguing Smith’s committee does not have the authority to request records from an investigation by a state official. The congressional delegation also argued the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has overreached it jurisdiction, writing that “the dispute in question is not a scientific one; it is a legal question about whether Exxon misled its investors and consumers.”
In a statement Thursday, Smith said, in part: “The Committee’s primary goal is to protect and promote scientific freedom and inquiry so that the United States remains a world leader in research and innovation. The actions of the Massachusetts and New York attorneys general, in coordination with environmental activist organizations, are undoubtedly having a chilling effect on scientists, researchers, and others engaged with the nation’s scientific enterprise.”
Smith also accused Healey and Schneiderman of hiding information about their investigations and said his subpoenas were “lawfully issued.”
Healey’s office said Thursday it “has every intention of continuing to fight these attempts to stop or hinder our investigation.”
Healey began investigating Exxon after InsideClimate News, a nonprofit news organization, published a series of stories last year on Exxon’s climate change research. The stories said the company knew as early as the 1970s that burning fossil fuels could cause global temperatures to rise, possibly leading to “catastrophic” environmental problems. Exxon researchers also estimated when those problems could arise, according to InsideClimate News.
Yet, as Healey has noted, Exxon continues to tell its investors that “current scientific understanding provides limited guidance on the likelihood, magnitude, or time frame of these events.” She and others also allege “Exxon appears to have engaged with other fossil fuel interests in a campaign from at least the 1990s onward to prevent government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.