House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) on Tuesday took a new tack in his confrontation with federal officials over a high-profile climate change study, backing away — for now — from his demands that the emails of the scientists who wrote it be turned over to lawmakers.
But Smith stepped up his pressure on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the internal deliberations of other high-level agency employees, including the office of the administrator, and the staffs of the offices of communications, legislative and intergovernmental affairs and the chief information officer.
The new strategy from the Texas Republican, who is investigating the scientists’ research and publication of a study debunking the idea of a global warming slowdown or “pause,” comes less than a week after a national uproar from the scientific community.
Seven prominent scientific organizations representing hundreds of thousands of scientists signed a letter to Smith last week warning that his campaign against NOAA is “establishing a practice of inquests” that will have a chilling effect on their academic freedom.
In a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on Tuesday, Smith, a prominent congressional climate change skeptic, said NOAA has “failed to act in good faith” to cooperate with his committee’s oversight efforts.
“As has been made clear repeatedly in meetings, telephone calls and e-mail exchanges with NOAA and [Commerce Department staff], the Committee’s ongoing oversight requires the production of e-mails and other communications sent and received by NOAA officials,” Smith wrote to Pritzker, whose agency includes NOAA.
But for the first time since he issued a subpoena to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan in October for emails and other communications showing the deliberations of both the scientists who did the research and high-level staff, Smith gave the agency a pass on the scientists.
“In order to move the Committee’s work forward…the Committee is willing to accommodate NOAA and prioritize communications sent and received by non-scientific personnel,” Smith wrote.
But he wrote that this “does not alleviate” the agency’s responsibility to provide the scientists’ deliberations eventually.
The scientists’ emails are at the center of a two-month confrontation between Smith and the Obama administration over a pivotal study of global warming that NOAA researchers published in June in the peer-reviewed journal Science. By rebutting the idea of a warming “pause” using updated land and sea temperature data, the study undercut the arguments of climate change skeptics like Smith.
In October, Smith subpoenaed the emails of the scientists and other NOAA officials, saying they would prove that the scientists altered global temperature data to arrive at their conclusion in order to promote the president’s climate agenda, which he has characterized as “extreme.”
Smith also alleged in two other letters to Pritzker last month that the study was “rushed to publication” and may have violated NOAA’s scientific integrity standards. Sullivan has denied both claims and refused to turn over emails of either the scientists or other officials at her agency, saying that internal deliberations are confidential and should not be disclosed for fear they could be misinterpreted.
In reference to Smith’s latest letter, NOAA spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said in an email, “We’re in receipt of the letter and are currently reviewing it.”
While an aide to Smith said the letter does not mean the chairman is backing down from seeking the scientists’ communications, advocacy groups saw the chairman’s letter as decisive.
“We’re happy to see this additional shift in Chairman Smith’s approach, and would like to think that his decision to prioritize other communications is in response to the extensive concerns raised by scientists,” said Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group. “It remains an abuse of power to subpoena the deliberative correspondence of scientists.”