For most of his four years as chair of the Science Committee, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas has served up more spectacle than policy. As arguably the showiest climate denier and opponent of environmental regulations in Congress, Smith has orchestrated climate change hearings that are the scientific equivalent of pro-wrestling matches. Stacked with skeptics who mocked mainstream climate science, they offered virtually no chance for significant dialogue. Similarly, Smith’s challenge to the well-documented relationship between air pollution and lung disease was seen as little more than a craven nod to the energy companies that were responsible for that pollution. And his repeated use of his subpoena power has served mostly to attract attention and make life difficult for the scientists and government workers he has targeted.
But Smith, who has boldly argued against funding for an institute that studies the toxicity of substances such as lead and asbestos, and has rushed to the defense of Monsanto’s RoundUp, is no longer just throwing bombs from the margins. With Trump in the White House and Scott Pruitt at the helm of the EPA, Smith now has the power to turn his visions of regulatory rollback into realities.
Already this session Smith revived two bills that, before the election, had been dismissed as nuisances. The Honest Act, which grew out of a strategy developed by the tobacco industry, is designed to prohibit the EPA from using public health research; the other bill, known as the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, was crafted to allow industry representatives to serve on scientific boards. Both bills were passed by the House in March.
And Smith just helped industry score another long-shot victory that would have been unthinkable before Trump. Back in 2015, after the EPA concluded the Northern Dynasty Minerals Company’s proposed 30-square-mile gold and copper mine would result in the destruction of up to 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of Alaskan wetlands and endanger the region’s salmon resources, one of the world’s largest, the agency limited the company’s ability to get permits for the project. So Northern Dynasty sought help from Smith.
In October 2015, Smith fired off a letter charging that the EPA had reached its decisions about the mining project before conducting its scientific study. The next month he held a hearing, to which he invited the CEO of Northern Dynasty so he could make the case for the mine himself. And in April 2016 Smith’s committee held another hearing about the mine in which Smith argued that the EPA had colluded with local groups opposed to the project.
At that point, financial concerns along with opposition from broad range of Alaskans, including native groups and commercial fisherman, had dimmed the chances that the company would ever plumb the Alaska wilderness for gold — so the crusade seemed like more of Smith’s trademark political theater. After the presidential election, however, Smith’s pet project took a different turn. In February, he sent another letter to the EPA about the mine, this one bearing congratulations to the recently confirmed EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, and explaining that EPA’s intervention in the project was based on a “questionable scientific assessment.” Last week Pruitt reversed the EPA’s stance, clearing a path for Northern Dynasty to move forward.
Smith has always been well liked by the energy industry — he has received more than $700,000 from the oil and gas industry over the course of his career, more than from any other sector — but his newfound power has clearly delighted climate deniers, as evidenced by the hero’s welcome he received when he gave the keynote address at the Heartland Institute’s Climate Conference in March.
Not everyone is pleased with Smith’s successes on behalf of polluting industries. National environmental groups are beginning to target Smith for being “one of the worst climate change deniers in Congress,” as Craig Auster of the League of Conservation Voters described him. And just as he is reaching the height of his power in Washington, Smith is facing a wave of outrage from constituents in Texas that could present the first real challenge for his seat in 30 years.
In many ways, Lamar Smith is an odd choice to chair the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, a perch from which he has at least partial jurisdiction over NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, FEMA, the U.S. Fire Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Energy, and the Federal Aviation Administration.
A lawyer who majored in American Studies and worked briefly as a business reporter before entering Congress, Smith doesn’t have a background or a degree in science. Like many Christian Scientists, he seems to eschew medicine. (Smith’s first wife, Jane, who was trained in the Christian Science practice of healing through prayer, died in 1991 in a Christian Science hospice, reportedly after refusing medical treatment.)
Smith often says he is seeking a return to “sound science” with his efforts to roll back regulation. But he is facing growing criticism from scientists and environmentalists around the country for making a mockery of the House Science Committee, or “the Exxon Committee on Science Fiction,” “the POTUS Ad Agency,” and “the environment-ruining dream team,” as some of its many haters on Twitter have referred to it.
The House Science Committee hasn’t always elicited such reactions. “It used to be a committee that was basically nonpartisan,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat who has served for 24 years on the committee. “We always had meaningful dialogue,” Johnson told me. “But it’s gotten to the point where we are labeled as a scientific committee made up of people who don’t believe in science. This is the most extreme experience I have had.”
Source/More: The Intercept