Multi-year ice melting.

Multi-year ice melting. NOAA file photo

NOAA Chief Spars with Lawmaker Over Climate Change Data

Administrator Kathryn Sullivan declined to turn over requested documents, but instead offered briefings.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is showing no signs of letting up on his demand for internal scientific documents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose administrator on Friday criticized his tactics and reiterated her offer of an alternative approach.

Since July, Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Smith has raised suspicions that a NOAA study by Thomas Karl, director of the agency’s National Centers for Environmental Information, contained altered data in order to confirm the continuing rise in the Earth’s temperature, a trend that Smith believes has been disproven in recent years.

“Information provided to the committee by whistleblowers appears to show that the Karl study was rushed to publication despite the concerns and objections of a number of NOAA scientists, ignoring established and standard NOAA scientific processes and potentially violating NOAA’s scientific integrity policies,” Smith wrote in one of a series of letters demanding internal emails on how the data were finalized.

When NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan declined to turn over the documents, even under an Oct. 13 subpoena, Smith on Nov. 18 went over her head with a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker threatening to subpoena her. He cited new information from whistleblowers saying the Karl study had been rushed. If NOAA didn’t reply by Nov. 20, he said, “I would be forced to consider the use of the compulsory process.”

On Nov. 20, Sullivan again wrote to the lawmaker, noting that Pritzker was out of the country and recapping the multiple communications between NOAA and his committee over the months. Despite these efforts, she said, the committee proceeded with its subpoena “requesting a wide range of documents and communications pertaining to broad areas of scientific study within NOAA. There were no timeframes provided in the subpoena, and it was not limited to particular individuals.”

NOAA asked the committee repeatedly to narrow the scope and then took the unusual step of having the scientists travel to Washington to brief congressional staffers—an offer Smith eventually declined, though the scientists did brief the committee’s Democratic members and staff.

“Dr. Karl’s study reflects the essence of the scientific process, while refining conclusions as new data and information is discovered,” Sullivan said, attaching NOAA’s 2011 order on scientific integrity, which forbids manipulation of data for policy reasons. “Mr. Chairman, let me assure you that I am not engaged in or associated with any politically correct agenda,” she said. “I and the entire NOAA team take seriously the charge to provide the best environmental science and reliable data to the nation and the world.”

Smith argued that the study was published in the journal Science just two months before the Obama administration finalized its Clean Power Plan, which he called the “most expansive carbon regulation in history costing upwards of $292 billion.” The “premature release,” he said, “raises concerns that it was expedited to fit the administration’s aggressive climate agenda.”

Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who has been opposing Smith’s actions for months, on Nov. 19 wrote to the chairman saying, “How curious it is that you are only now justifying your previous six demand letters and subpoena with an actual allegation of ‘wrongdoing’ by the agency. To be frank, this appears to be an after-the-fact attempt to justify a fishing expedition. Moreover, your ‘whistleblowers’ don't even appear to be challenging the findings of the study, but rather, that the study was ‘rushed,’ ” Johnson wrote.

“This mild accusation would hardly seem to warrant the hyper-aggressive oversight and rhetoric you have leveled at NOAA,” she said, adding that the study was actually submitted to the journal in December 2014, months before the whistleblowers—whose precise claims are not known to the minority side—spoke up.

On Monday, Smith rebutted Johnson in a letter accusing her of obstructing his probe and asking her not to go public in the future when it comes to whistleblowers, who, he added, had just come forward.

“The agency has failed to fully explain the conditions surrounding its process and procedures for adjusting upward temperature readings that eliminated the ‘pause’ in global warming,” he wrote. “NOAA is also unwilling to provide the committee with information related to the role of political appointees in the decision to adjust temperature data and widely publicize conclusions based on those adjustments. Providing the committee with publically available information and two briefings is not an adequate response.”

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