Science Agencies and Federal Scientists Under Threat as Control of House Shifts Next Month

Come January 2023, when the new Congress is sworn in, several anti-science legislators will have outsized power in the U.S. House of Representatives. With that shift in political power, and based on past examples, CSLDF anticipates increased investigations of climate scientists by members of Congress with hostile views on climate action. Some of these legislators have been openly antagonistic of scientists and science agencies. And some have already promised to launch congressional inquiries into climate work once they gain control of the House.

To name one example: Rep. Bruce Westerman (AR-R) has indicated that he will launch wide-ranging probes into the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Forest Service, the Interior Department, and the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. In one instance, Westerman cited the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency to question whether the Council was engaging in agency overreach—coded language often invoked by regressive legislators to criticize any government oversight.

Whether investigations into these science agencies or climate scientists in particular will occur—and, if so, when—are outstanding questions. But even the threat of these inquiries can have the effect of chilling scientific research, foreclosing frank conversations amongst scientists, and preventing candid collaboration in universities and labs across the country. If past is prelude, climate action will be under direct threat once control of the House flips.

In September, for example, the current House Natural Resources Committee voted to reject Republican resolutions of inquiry that would have demanded documents from the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture regarding offshore oil and gas leasing programs and mineral withdrawal policies. The apparent goal was determining whether existing fossil fuel extraction policies and programs were aggressive enough.

Questions also abound with respect to who will become the new Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the new Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Frank Lucas (OK-R) and the aforementioned Bruce Westerman have been mentioned as top contenders for these important positions, respectively.

In particular, Lucas has previously taken anti-climate stances, including a 2011 House floor speech where he mocked EPA attempts to rein in greenhouse gas pollution as “the EPA’s irrational regulatory approach” and misleadingly claimed that “the EPA has concluded that the breath that we exhale, the gas that livestock expels, are dangerous pollutants and should be regulated by the Clean Air Act.” 

Likewise, Westerman has vowed not to be “boxed in” by climate change or the environment, and is instead anticipated to support expanded mining on federally owned lands if given a leadership position. CSLDF and other environmental groups are especially concerned about whether this includes weakening the National Environmental Policy Act. (In the past, Westerman’s solution to climate change has been to suggest simply planting more trees.) It also remains to be seen whether the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will be dismantled entirely, or so watered down as to be effectively nonexistent.

In the meantime, CSLDF will continue to defend climate scientists on all fronts, including closely monitoring anti-climate science actions both in the private sector and in the government itself. Stay tuned in 2023 as we continue to monitor false statements and actions that stymie science and threaten scientific progress.

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