Texas Rep. Lamar Smith Gets Told Off by Washington State AG Over Exxon and Climate Change

Rep. Lamar Smith, climate change denier, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Of course.
Rep. Lamar Smith, climate change denier, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Of course.
Photo from the U.S. House of Representatives

Once again Representative Lamar Smith has gotten soundly, publicly schooled for using the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to push his anti-climate change views.

This time Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson told the Texas congressman off for poking at his state's possible investigation into whether ExxonMobil, one of the largest energy companies in the world, hid global warming from the public for decades. 

Ever since last fall, Exxon, the Dallas-based energy behemoth, has faced intense scrutiny based on stories published by InsideClimateNews and the Los Angeles Times that chronicled how top company scientists concluded as early as 1977 that climate change was real but kept those findings under wraps.  Meanwhile, Exxon officials became some of the most ardent climate change deniers around.

Smith, from San Antonio, has been pushing climate science denial ever since he became chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in 2013. Now the Exxon business has given Smith has a new reason to defend those who think global warming isn't real. 

In April, a coalition of state AGs started investigating Exxon to see if the company's public statements over the years directly contradicted Exxon's own research about climate change. So in May, Smith countered by opening an investigation looking at whether the pro-environment state AGs have been influenced by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic foundation that involves itself in environmental matters. 

As part of the investigation, Smith's congressional panel sent Ferguson a request for all communications between Ferguson's office and other states, all correspondence between Ferguson's office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and any missives between Ferguson's office and any environmental groups. 

This isn't the first time Smith has used this sweeping type of information request to try to grab what he apparently hopes will be damning communications. He did the same thing with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration earlier this year. (His NOAA requests were particularly ridiculous according to fellow Texas Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat and ranking committee member, because Smith's "fishing expedition" was totally unnecessary — most of what he was asking for was posted online.)

However, while the NOAA officials played along for a bit, Ferguson apparently decided he simply wasn't having it. His letter replying to Smith summarily smacked down all of Smith's requests, albeit in formal political speak.

"We respectfully decline to provide the information to you," Ferguson wrote. "The Attorney General is authorized by the Washington Legislature to conduct investigations into potential violations of state law."

Then Ferguson got more direct. "Neither Congress, nor the Committee, has authority to interfere with the Attorney General's implementation of such authority. Moreover, the information you seek is privileged," he wrote, giving Smith a quick rundown about how federalism actually works. "Congress has certain enumerated powers to govern the individual citizens of the United States; however, the Constitution does not authorize Congress to require the States to govern according to Congress' instructions."

And the best part of all this is Ferguson isn't even (officially at least) investigating Exxon. All the Washington AG has done is join 15 other states in backing up the Obama administration's efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Still, Ferguson spelled it out for Smith that Ferguson isn't required by law to hand over information about whether the state of Washington is working with other states about Exxon "or any related investigation of violations of state law related to climate change." 

In fact, Ferguson pointedly noted, his office doesn't talk about either existing or potential cases at all. 
"To ensure effective implementation of our authorities under law, the Attorney General's office does not discuss whether we are or will be investigating any particular matter, nor share information related to the same," he dryly stated.

Ferguson closed by advising Smith to try using Washington's open records law next time.

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