Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas spent most of the summer unsuccessfully trying to scuttle an ongoing investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts into whether Exxon Mobil Corp. withheld damning information about global warming that its own scientists uncovered decades ago. As chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Smith is actually investigating the investigation itself — which he calls a “form of extortion” — as well as a separate inquiry launched by New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman.
Why is Smith so bent on interfering with the work of elected state officials over whom he has no authority? It might have something to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s received from Big Oil over the years, and the fact that Exxon Mobil calls Texas home. Or maybe it’s just because the Republican representative doubts climate change is real.
In any case, Smith has subpoenaed e-mails and other documents from Healey that he seems convinced will prove she’s in cahoots with environmental activists out to destroy the oil business — a view that mirrors Exxon Mobil’s stance. Healey says she’s simply seeking to determine whether the oil giant perpetrated fraud against consumers and investors by keeping secret the truth about climate change — even as it publicly campaigned to cast doubt on the legitimacy of global warming. She’s stood up to the political bullying by refusing to comply with Smith’s demands. Her chief legal counsel, Richard Johnston, called the subpoena “completely unprecedented in its intended interference with an ongoing regulatory investigation by a state’s attorney general.”
The wrangling over Exxon Mobil's alleged complicity in furthering what now is an unfolding worldwide environmental disaster began last year. That's when the website InsideClimate News published an alarming series showing that, as far back as the 1970s, company scientists worried about warming caused by increased carbon emissions. The stories hinged on this crucial question: Instead of doubling down on fossil fuel development, what if Exxon had acknowledged the threat, and then —as one of its own managers wrote in a 1978 memo — tackled the problem as "a project aimed at benefitting mankind"? Exxon Mobil condemned the series, and similar reporting from other news organizations, as environmentalist propaganda that portrayed robust internal discourse about global warming as a sinister activity.
Before Smith got involved as an oil industry surrogate, Exxon Mobil went to court in Massachusetts and Texas in hopes of derailing the state investigations. In a June federal filing, the company called Healey's requests for information "nothing more than a weak pretext for an unlawful exercise of government power to further political objectives."
Even those who might question the need for Healey to investigate Exxon Mobil should be able to agree that she has the right to conduct an inquiry — it’s the kind of thing attorneys general routinely do. Smith’s attempts to intimidate her have generated a chorus of criticism that has grown louder in recent weeks, calling more attention to his tactics. Ten attorneys general signed a letter demanding that he back off. The 11-member Massachusetts Congressional delegation labeled his actions “damaging and pointless,” and Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted: “You picked a fight with the wrong state & the wrong AG.”
Smith, however, remains unfazed. He's scheduled a Sept. 14 oversight hearing at which he plans to reiterate his contention that the subpoenas are part of a "legitimate and constitutionally authorized legislative investigation." As a House committee chairman, he does indeed have the power to issue subpoenas — no matter how frivolous or punitive — and, in rejecting one, Healey risks being held in contempt. But Smith isn't empowered to have any say in who or what attorneys general choose to look into on behalf of constituents. Allowing him to do so would set a dangerous precedent.