NOAA Refuses to Produce Internal Communications Subpoenaed by House Science Committee

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has refused to produce documents subpoenaed by Congressional Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, who sought internal NOAA communications relating to a recent climate change study.

The study by NOAA scientists, published in Science in June 2015, found that global temperatures have increased faster than had previously been thought.  In particular, the study found there were data errors in some ocean surface measurements, and corrections to the datasets yielded greater recent temperature increases than earlier studies had indicated.[1]  In a news piece, Nature wrote that the “study contradicts previous findings – often cited by global-warming sceptics – suggesting that warming has slowed since the 1990s.”[2]  (A graphic comparing the new dataset with the old dataset, which already contained some corrections, is available here.)

Rep. Smith himself has been critical of evidence supporting man-made climate change, and he once suggested that climate scientists colluded “to hide contradictory temperature data.”[3]  In a July 14, 2015 letter to NOAA, he claimed the new study was “in direct disagreement” with previous studies, and he stated that “[w]hen corrections to scientific data are made, the quality of the analysis and decision-making is brought into question.  The conclusions brought forth in this new study have lasting impacts and provide the basis for further action through regulations.”  He requested copies of all data “related to this study and the updated global datasets, including the methods of analysis used to adjust data”; all documents and communications relating to the data corrections (over an eighteen month period); and all information related to NOAA’s plans to make the data public.[4]

NOAA responded by “pointing him to the relevant data and methods, all of which had already been publicly available” but it declined to provide any internal communications. [5]  Rep. Smith sent two additional letters in September, seeking additional data and reiterating his desire for internal communications.  NOAA provided more data and information about the study, including in-person briefings to explain the science.[6]  However, it never produced the internal communications Rep. Smith wanted.

On October 13, Rep. Smith issued a subpoena to NOAA seeking the internal communications.  (New rules passed this January allow chairs on some House committees – including the House Science Committee – to issue subpoenas unilaterally.[7])  The subpoena claimed that the internal “documents and communications are central to the Committee’s oversight of NOAA’s decision to readjust historical temperature records. . . . NOAA’s decision to readjust historical temperature records has broad national implications.”[8]

The ranking minority member on the House Science Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), responded to Rep. Smith’s subpoena with a pointed letter on October 23, in which she described the subpoena as “furthering a fishing expedition.”[9]  Rep. Johnson wrote that “NOAA, rightfully, has been reluctant to waste their time and resources, not to mention break confidence with their superb research scientists by responding” to requests for internal communications.  She quoted the Washington Post to say that “[a]cademics must feel comfortable sharing research, disagreeing with colleagues and proposing conclusions – not all of which will be correct – without fear that those who dislike their findings will conduct invasive fishing expeditions in search of a pretext to defend them.”  Rep. Johnson stated it was “an inquiry that seems more designed to harass climate scientists than to further any legitimate legislative purpose.  This is a serious misuse of Congressional oversight powers.”[10]

Dr. Benjamin Santer, a climate scientist at the federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, took the “fishing” comparison a step further and said this “is not a fishing expedition – this is a trawling expedition.”  He expanded that “I don’t think this is the kind of issue a congressional staffer with little or no scientific training can adjudicate on.”  Instead, he said the subpoena is “looking for an unfortunate phrasing in emails to cast doubt on an entire scientific endeavor.”[11]

NOAA itself responded to the subpoena on October 27 with a letter citing numerous briefings, datasets, studies, and other information it gave the committee over the past few months, and provided additional background information, but it again declined to turn over any emails or other deliberative communications.[12]  In a separate statement, NOAA said that “the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse” and it “is a long-standing practice in the scientific community to protect the confidentiality of deliberative scientific discourse.”[13]

Rep. Smith countered with a statement claiming it was “suspicious” that NOAA “alters data to get the politically correct results they want and then refuses to reveal how those decisions were made.  NOAA needs to come clean about why they altered the data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda.”  Rep. Smith claimed NOAA “has yet to identify any legal basis for withholding these documents” and stated that the “Committee intends to use all tools at its disposal to undertake its Constitutionally-mandated oversight responsibilities.”[14]

Lauren Kurtz is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to protect the scientific endeavor.  CSLDF has provided legal assistance to help an individual climate scientist respond to a separate inquiry by Rep. Lamar Smith.