In a series of letters sent on Wednesday, a group of Republicans on the House science committee accused 17 state attorneys general and eight activist, science outreach and legal groups of colluding on investigations of companies such as ExxonMobil and its allies. In the letters, the lawmakers complain that companies that question and challenge climate science and policy are being unfairly targeted.
"The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is conducting oversight of a coordinated attempt to deprive companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists of their First Amendment rights and abilities to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution," according to the letters.
This new volley follows the launch of a coalition of state attorneys general that announced in March it would support urgent action on climate change and investigate fossil fuel companies that spread doubt about climate science.
The state attorneys general offices of New York, Massachusetts, and California are investigating Exxon and whether it misled the public and investors on the risks associated with climate change. Meanwhile, officials from the Virgin Islands announced they were opening a racketeering investigation into Exxon. The Virgin Islands inquiry not only sought Exxon's communications with groups that challenge the scientific mainstream on climate, but also demanded records from some of Exxon's allies, including the Competitive Economics Institute (CEI). The targets have mounted vigorous campaigns asserting that their free speech rights are under assault, a case CEI made in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on Tuesday.
Thirteen of the 21 Republicans on the House science committee joined the defense of Exxon, including its chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and vice chairman Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.).
The letter does not carry enormous legal weight, as it does not so far have the signatures of a majority of the panel. Nor is it a formal subpoena.
"It is remarkable that a do-nothing Congress that has refused to take any action on climate change is now attempting to disrupt this important investigation into potential corporate malfeasance," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's spokesman Eric Soufer said in a statement.
"The irony of this letter is breathtaking, as its signatories appear to be part of a multi-pronged media campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry aimed at suppressing the free exchange of ideas among scientists, academics, and responsible law enforcement. New York will continue to work with and collaborate with its colleagues across the country, and those with expertise in this area, to protect its citizens from fraud," said Soufer.
Ever since Smith gained control of the committee in 2013, its most conservative faction has aggressively questioned climate science and funding, including charging the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of misrepresenting climate data.
That feud earned the committee an unusual rebuke last year in a joint letter from major scientific groups: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Statistical Association, the Ecological Society of America, and the Geological Society of America. They said the committee's actions were chilling scientific inquiry—the very charge Smith is now making about the investigations into Exxon.
Smith and his allies on the committee bitterly oppose the Paris climate treaty and action on climate change generally, with many of them vocally doubting the mainstream scientific consensus on the climate crisis. At hearings, the panel's majority often invites testimony weighted toward this view.
In the letters sent out this week, Smith describes the multiple probes as "efforts to silence speech," and then questions the motives of the state attorneys general of being "based on political theater rather than legal or scientific arguments." The Congressmen also say that the probes qualify as "abuse of prosecutorial discretion."
In the letters, the committee requested all documents and communications between the state attorneys general and specific environmental groups; all documentation between the different state attorneys general offices; and all documentation between state attorneys general offices and other branches of government, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Executive Office of the President on this issue.
The House Republicans also accuse the environmental, legal and science outreach groups of plotting against fossil fuel companies for their controversial actions on climate since 2012.
The Republicans—several of them from Texas, where Exxon is based—requested all the documentation and communication between the groups on this issue, and between the specific organizations and the offices of state attorneys general. The organizations targeted in this probe include 350.org, Climate Accountability Institute, The Climate Reality Project, Greenpeace, Pawa Law Group, P.C, The Rockefellers Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"The fundamental premise of the letter is ridiculous," Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told InsideClimate News. "Chairman Smith and his colleagues totally mischaracterize the nature of the investigations of the attorneys general." Frumhoff added that UCS is "completely unapologetic about the work we've done to expose the deceptions by fossil fuel companies."
"America's least-respected politicians have now courageously stepped up to defend one of America's most-hated corporations from scrutiny," said Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, in a statement. "If these Representatives, who have historically low approval ratings, think they're somehow helping Exxon's public image with this nonsense, then they need to take some time away from lobbyist mixers and meet the people."
The House lawmakers' letters reference InsideClimate News, which has reported extensively on activist efforts to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate damages and on Exxon's efforts to study climate science and then publicly express doubt about climate risks.
Editor's note: InsideClimate News receives funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund, two of the groups receiving letters from the lawmakers.