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Environment & Energy Daily - House Probe turns to Role of Cheney's Office

March 20, 2007

by Lauren Morello

A House probe into reports that the Bush administration improperly edited federal climate studies took a new turn yesterday, as Democrats focused on interactions between the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

At issue is an April 23, 2003, memo between former CEQ chief of staff Philip Cooney and Kevin O'Donovan, an aide in Cheney's office. The document discusses a 2003 study by two industry-affiliated astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, that concluded there was no convincing evidence of global warming.

The study kicked up controversy shortly after it appeared in the journal Climate Science, with three editors of the journal resigning to protest its publication. The Cooney-O'Donovan memo suggests the Bush administration seized on the controversial study to exaggerate existing uncertainty in climate change science, according to Democrats on the House Oversight and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Democrats read sections of the memo aloud at a hearing yesterday in the House despite objections from CEQ lawyers present.

"'We plan to begin referring to this study on administration communications on climate change,'" said the memo from Cooney to O'Donovan, as read by committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "'It represents an opening to potentially reinvigorate debate on the actual climate history of the past thousand years.'"

Waxman and other Democrats were able to quote from the memo because CEQ has allowed committee staffers to review the document in the White House, though it has cited executive privilege in refusing to provide a hard copy to lawmakers.

Asked about the memo and the extent of his communications with Cheney's office, Cooney said O'Donovan "was a colleague and we would talk occasionally."

CEQ Director James Connaughton said he found the Soon-Baliunas study to be "fascinating" and dismissed Waxman's characterization of the research as "flawed science" that is dismissed by a majority of climatologists.

For his part, Waxman said the Cooney-O'Donovan memo "suggests active coordination between CEQ and the office of the vice president," and asked Connaughton to provide other, similar communication between the two White House offices.

"That's something for our lawyers to work out," said Connaughton, dredging up echoes of the long-standing dispute between CEQ and the House panel over lawmakers' document requests.

CEQ agreed to release several boxes of internal White House documents to lawmakers last month, following a months-long dispute in which the administration cited executive privilege in withholding the communications.

Dems question petroleum industry connection

But the main focus of yesterday's hearing was Cooney's role in editing several executive branch reports on climate change.

Cooney resigned his post as CEQ chief of staff in 2005, following press reports that he had made numerous changes to federal climate reports that created an artificial sense of uncertainty with regard to current climate science. He is now employed by Exxon Mobil Corp.

In sworn testimony before the House panel -- his first congressional appearance since resigning from CEQ -- Cooney said he believed his White House duty was to "align executive branch reports with Bush administration policy."

Cooney repeatedly said that his edits were based on a government-requested 2001 report on climate science by the National Academy of Sciences.

"I had the authority and responsibility to make recommendations to the documents in question, under an established interagency review process," Cooney said. "I did so using my best judgment, based on the administration's research priorities, as informed by the National Academy of Sciences."

But Democrats questioned Cooney's remarks, based on internal administration documents they obtained during their ongoing probe and on Cooney's 15 years of work for the American Petroleum Institute before he joined the administration.

"When I look at the role you played at API and at the White House, they seem virtually identical," Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. "In both places, you seem to seed doubt on global warming."

Waxman and other Democrats went line by line through Cooney's edits, comparing them with the NAS text they said offered a far different view of climate science.

Democrats also released a staff memo concluding that CEQ documents the committee has obtained -- enough to fill more than eight boxes -- "appear to portray a systematic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change."

Committee Republicans dismissed the Democrats' arguments, with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) arguing that Cooney, who holds a law degree, treated API and the White House simply as "clients" and did not display any prejudice in favor of oil and gas interests in his government work.

Republican Rep. Mark Souder (Ind.) went a step further, calling Democrats' characterization of Cooney as a "smear based on indirect associations" that resembled "McCarthyism."

Conspicuously absent from the hearing was ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.), who began the White House probe in the 109th Congress when he held the panel's gavel.

For his part, Connaughton said he believed the House probe's focus on Cooney was "misguided."

"I live in two worlds," Connaughton said. "The world of reality and what I've been hearing here today."

Cooney's 15 years as a petroleum industry lobbyist before he joined the White House did not prejudice him in favor of environmental policy options favored by the oil and gas industry, Connaughton said. "Philip Cooney is one of the people of highest integrity I've run across," he said. "He's also an outstanding manager." Republicans zero in on NASA's Hansen.

Also testifying at yesterday's hearing was NASA climatologist James Hansen, who made headlines last year with claims that Bush administration political appointees prevented him from speaking with reporters about his climate research.

The resulting controversy sparked reports of scientific suppression at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. It also led to the firing of former NASA political appointee George Deutsch, the news office aide who issued the gag order against Hansen.

Asked by Democrats to weigh in on Cooney's role at CEQ, Hansen said he believed "the nature of [his] edits is the reason why there is a substantial gap between the understanding of global warming by the relevant scientific community and by the public and policymakers."

Referring to his own situation at NASA, Hansen questioned why political appointees were in charge of government public affairs offices.

"If public affairs offices are left under the control of political appointees, it seems to me that they inherently become offices of propaganda," Hansen said.

Those comments and others drew harsh criticism from Republicans, who argued that Hansen has been very successful in bringing his message on climate change to the public, despite any restrictions enacted by the Bush administration.

Calling Hansen "one of the most easily Google-able human beings on the face of the Earth," Issa said, "the message is getting out, wouldn't you say?"

Souder questioned Hansen's political ties, noting that the scientist supported John Kerry for president in 2004 and won a Heinz Award in 2001 for his work publicizing global warming science. The awards were established by Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz, in memory of her late husband, Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.).

"I'm a registered independent," Hansen said in response to the Republican's questioning. "I would've voted for [Sen. John] McCain in 2004 but he wasn't running."

 
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