No one at the hearing mentioned that, through the Food and Drug Administration and University of Maryland's Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the EPRI contributed $486,000 to a Seychelles-related research project involving Myers' group. In an interview, Myers said the funding did not support "the main study in the Seychelles," but rather "some related studies." Yet others contend that that funding is relevant for assessing all of the Seychelles work. "Think about what your mother might say," says Rena Steinzor, director of the environmental-law clinic at the University of Maryland and a board member at the Center for Progressive Regulation. "Would she want to know that some doctor who told her mercury in fish was safe had been given money by the industry most affected by proposals to cut this pollution?"
As on the climate issue, Inhofe leaned toward the industry-friendly outlier position. His questioning emphasized that fish are part of a healthy diet, and appeared to challenge the prominent Faroe Islands mercury study, which did show damaging effects on child development and was relied upon by the NAS. Once again, Inhofe's staff insisted that the panel was balanced. Myers' work, they wrote, is "the most comprehensive study to date."
Ironically, the mercury issue links back to climate change in a surprising way. In December 2003, the Center for Science and Public Policy at the conservative Frontiers of Freedom Institute came out with a report saying that the EPA's initial push to regulate mercury stringently -- since watered down -- was "not justified by science." Like Inhofe's staff, the report treated the Seychelles work of Gary Myers as definitive. One of the report's two authors was none other than Dr. Willie Soon, listed as "science director" of the Center for Science and Public Policy. Frontiers of Freedom received $232,000 from ExxonMobil in 2002.
But perhaps the most anti-scientific part of Inhofe's agenda has been his involvement in a legal push, led by the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute (which received $405,000 from ExxonMobil in 2002), to suppress a trailblazing Clinton-era report focusing on potential impacts of climate change on different U.S. regions -- the so-called National Assessment. Perhaps because the National Assessment makes the consequences of climate change very clear in an almost visceral way, it has been ferociously attacked by those hoping to stop preventive action. "It says exactly what will happen in people's backyards, so it's very powerful," says Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer.
Conservatives first brought a lawsuit over the National Assessment in late 2000, not long before Bill Clinton left office. Filed by the CEI with Inhofe as a co-plaintiff, the suit alleged various procedural deficiencies in the report's preparation. It then stunningly demanded a block on the report's production or utilization -- in other words, a court's withholding of scientific information. Co-plaintiff Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican representative from Missouri, charged, "The administration is rushing to release a junk science report in violation of current law to try to lend support to its flawed Kyoto Protocol negotiations."
But leading scientists think differently and have said so. An entire section of the 2001 NAS report was devoted to discussing the National Assessment, which it said "provides a basis for summarizing the potential consequences of climate change." And another NAS panel tasked with reviewing the Bush administration's 10-year climate-change research plan recently observed that the National Assessment made "important contributions to understanding the possible consequences of climate variability and change," calling the report's review process "exemplary."
After Clinton left the White House, the Bush administration settled the CEI lawsuit with an admission that the National Assessment was merely a government report and didn't represent official policy. But in the meantime, Emerson had attached a brief rider to an appropriations bill that would soon become known as the Data Quality Act. The law creates a new means for parties to submit complaints, and ultimately lawsuits, over the scientific quality of government information. Though his staff says he doesn't support making major legislative changes by appropriations rider "as a general rule," Inhofe has embraced the act.
In August of 2003, the CEI launched the very first lawsuit under the act, demanding a halt to the report's dissemination by the government. Inhofe wasn't involved in the second suit directly, but as The Washington Post reported, his committee invited a CEI attorney involved in both cases to attend a meeting between UN representatives and congressional staff in early 2003. This outraged many Democrats present, who claimed the appearance was "highly unusual and a breach of congressional protocol."
The meeting concerned a series of climate-change reports that the United States is required to submit to the United Nations under the Framework Convention. The lawyer, the CEI's Christopher Horner, says he was "not there in pursuit of information relating to any pending lawsuits."
In any case, the suits have clearly had a chilling effect. After the White House settled with the CEI a second time, the government Web site displaying the National Assessment was amended to include a prominent disclaimer saying that the report had not been subject to Data Quality Act guidelines. Yet the Data Quality Act wasn't even in effect when the report was prepared. Meanwhile, the administration's strategic plan on climate research omits any presentation of the National Assessment's key findings and results -- something for which it was twice taken to task by the National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the plan. "All the way through the climate-change science plan, [the administration] clearly had distanced [itself], in a not very shy way, from the U.S. National Assessment," says Jerry Mahlman, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, who sat on the panel.