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GOP lawmaker calls witness ‘boo’ at hearing, prompts Ocasio-Cortez apology

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) apologized after Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) referred to Raya Salter, an environmental lawyer, as “young lady” on Sept. 15. (Video: Reuters)
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It was a House Oversight Committee hearing meant to examine how fossil fuel companies campaigned to stymie climate action. But Thursday’s debate took a turn after a contentious exchange between Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) and a witness prompted another lawmaker to apologize in a moment that made waves on social media.

What eventually became a shouting match with phrases such as “boo” and “young lady” being tossed around started with a question about petrochemicals. Higgins — who calls fossil fuels “the lifeblood of our modern society” — asked Raya Salter, the founder of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center, a public interest law firm, what her plan was to deal with the abundance of products made with chemical compounds derived from fossil fuels.

“Everything you have — your clothes, your glasses, the car you got here on, your phone, the table you’re sitting at, the chair, the carpet under your feet — everything you’ve got is petrochemical products. What would you do with that? Tell the world!” Higgins told Salter, who is also a member of the New York State Climate Action Council, a state government-affiliated environmental body.

Salter responded by saying, “If I had that power, actually I don’t need that power, because what I would do is ask you, sir from Louisiana,” before Higgins interrupted.

The next 2½ minutes were marked by a tense back-and-forth in which Higgins and Salter attempted to speak over each other.

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Salter asked Higgins to “search your heart and ask your God what you’re doing to the Black and poor people in Louisiana,” who she said were some of the most affected by the pollutants released by petrochemical plants.

The Republican lawmaker responded by saying, “My good lady, I’m trying to give you the floor, boo,” and asking, “Okay, so what would you do?”

“You’ve got no answer do you, young lady? About what to do with petrochemical products? So I’ll move on,” Higgins continued.

Salter replied that “we need to move away from petrochemicals, we need to shut down the petrochemical facilities in your state and move away from plastic.”

Louisiana produces more natural gas than all but two states nationwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The state’s 16 oil refineries, which are able to process some 3.2 million barrels of crude oil a day, make up about 20 percent of the country’s refining capacity. Much of that infrastructure is concentrated along Louisiana’s Gulf of Mexico-facing southern region — which forms part of the district Higgins represents.

Higgins noted that the liquefied natural gas projects in his district help reduce carbon emissions. Liquefied natural gas has been hailed as a transitional source of energy in the move toward carbon neutrality, and amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Biden administration is ramping up natural gas deliveries to Europe in the hope of controlling the energy crisis. But while liquefied natural gas produces less carbon emissions than fossil fuels such as coal and oil, it isn’t totally clean, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment nonprofit.

The oil and gas industries ranked among the top five contributors to Higgins’s campaign in the 2021-2022 election cycle, according to data from OpenSecrets, a campaign finance watchdog. The Republican lawmaker has also advocated for the economic importance of fossil fuel. Last year, he introduced a resolution challenging the Biden administration to operate the White House without petrochemical-derived products. The bill was referred to a House subcommittee in February 2021 and hasn’t been discussed since.

“Modern life is not possible without the oil and gas industry. These energy sources fuel the world, and petroleum-based products are found in virtually everything everywhere,” Higgins said in a statement at the time.

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That was the point he was trying to make Thursday — but the way he delivered his remarks shocked some Democratic members of Congress. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) went as far as apologizing for the “conduct of this committee and what we just witnessed.”

“I just want you to know that in the four years that I’ve sat on this committee, I have never seen members of Congress — Republican or Democrat — disrespect a witness in the way that I have seen them disrespect you today,” Ocasio-Cortez said to Salter. “I do not care what party they are in. I’ve never seen anything like that. For the gentleman of Louisiana and the comfort he felt in yelling at you like that, there’s more than one way to get a point across.”

“Frankly, men who treat women like that in public, I fear how they treat them in private,” Ocasio-Cortez added.

Higgins’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment early Friday. However, he told the Hill in a statement that he wasn’t going to let “leftist activists” run over him.

“When radicals show up in front of my Committee with an attitude talking anti-American trash, they can expect to get handled. I really don’t care if I hurt anybody’s feelings while I’m fighting to preserve our Republic,” he told the outlet.

Video footage of Ocasio-Cortez’s critical remarks — which were broadly echoed by liberals online — and the verbal back-and-forth trended on social media Thursday. One clip showing the exchange between Higgins and Salter had racked up more than 560,000 views on Twitter by early Friday.

On Thursday afternoon, the GOP lawmaker doubled down on what he said, sharing a video of the back-and-forth and urging his followers to “watch my exchange with an unhinged climate activist from today’s [House Oversight] Committee hearing.”

Salter maintained she was unscathed.

“Thanks for the support! I’m unbothered by fossil fuel cronies!!!” she wrote on Twitter.