House Science Chairman Pressures NOAA Anew on Climate Change Study

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, was not satisfied with NOAA's response to his last request for documents. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, was not satisfied with NOAA's response to his last request for documents. Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

Though some in the scientific community thought he was backing off, House Science panel Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, this week stepped up his demands that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration locate and hand over more documents relating to a controversial 2015 climate change study.

In a Feb. 22 letter to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, the head of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee complained that the agency’s response to his subpoena last October had resulted in only 301 pages of documents, many containing duplicative emails.

Smith has argued that NOAA scientists preparing a study for publication in the journal Science were colluding with Obama administration environmental policymakers to alter temperature readings to make a better case for clamping down on industries contributing to climate change. The agency has argued that it is cooperating by sharing information on how the study’s conclusions were reached, but many in the scientific community consider Smith’s requests for documents to be “meddling” and an intrusion on scientific freedom.

The search terms being used by NOAA documents staff, Smith said this week, are “unnecessarily narrow, and the committee fears that they may not accurately capture the breadth and scope of documents responsive to the committee’s request.”

The new request broadens the scope to additional offices within NOAA and specifies the following search terms: “Karl,” “buoy,” “ship,” “Night Marine Air Temperature,” “temperature,” “climate,” “change,” “Paris,” “U.N.” “United Nations,” “clean power plan,” “regulations,” “Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” “President,” “Obama,” “White House,” and “Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).”

Smith also asked for all documents related to NOAA’s compliance with the scientific integrity provisions in the 2001 Data Quality Act, all by Feb. 29.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which obtained an early copy of the letter, cited a growing movement of scientists worried about Smith’s approach to the climate change debate. “The use of a sledgehammer of a congressional subpoena to cast so wide a net is unprecedented and unjustified; at the same time it harasses and distracts scientists who are just doing their jobs,” wrote member Andrew Rosenberg in a letter to Smith and a blog post on Friday.  “To protect the independence of its scientists, we believe that NOAA is justified in resisting this newest demand. Further, it is our hope that you will decide to stop this burdensome and unwarranted fishing expedition by rescinding your latest inquiry, as well as withdrawing your original subpoena.”

A committee aide for Smith told Government Executive the scientist group’s letter is “disingenuous. This is a group that blindly defends the administration and does not seem to understand how oversight requests work or what the expansion of search terms means,” he said. “For example, the committee is not requesting every email that has the words ‘temperature’ or ‘buoy’ -- we are requesting NOAA to include those terms in their own search for responsive documents.  Once the agency gathers all possibly responsive documents, then they go through them and sort for the ones that are actually responsive to the committee's original request.”

NOAA spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton told Government Executive the agency has received the letter and is reviewing it.

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