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Oil Baron Rex Tillerson Refuses To Answer Questions About Exxon Mobil’s Climate Change Denial

During his confirmation hearing, former Exxon Mobil CEO and nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, refused to answer questions about what the fossil fuel corporation knew about climate change. He also refused to talk about Exxon Mobil’s funding of outside organizations in order to create doubt about climate science.

Environmental groups are terribly alarmed by the prospect of having Tillerson at the helm of the United States State Department, especially as the threat of climate disruption caused by humans intensifies. Activists organized a “Reject Rex” campaign that includes protests at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine asked Tillerson about journalism, which exposed much of the extent to which Exxon Mobil was aware in the 1970s of the science that carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels was potentially destructive. Reports also detailed efforts to publicly fund efforts to deny, downplay, and diminish the scientific consensus around climate change.

Tillerson answered, “Since I’m no longer with Exxon Mobil, I’m in no position to speak on their behalf. The question would have to be put to them.”

Kaine insisted he was not asking Tillerson to speak on Exxon Mobil’s behalf. He noted Tillerson worked for the conglomerate, which has a global presence, for 42 years. For half of that time, he was an executive, and he became CEO in 2006. So, he should have knowledge and views about the claims in news reports.

Tillerson again said Kaine would have to ask Exxon Mobil. To which, Kaine replied, “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?”

“A little of both,” Tillerson coolly declared.

“I have a hard time believing you lack the knowledge to answer my question,” Kaine said.

Mary Boeve, an executive director for environmental activist organization, 350.org: “Tillerson is still lying about what Exxon knew about climate change.”

“We need a Secretary of State who acknowledges that the climate crisis requires bold action, not an oil industry CEO who is dedicated to spreading misinformation. Tillerson deserves a federal investigation into Exxon’s lies, not a cabinet appointment,” Boeve asserted.

Kaine asked Tillerson if he was subject to any kind of confidentiality agreement that might prevent him from being forthright and honest. He did not appear to know of any such agreement.

In a prior exchange, Democratic Senator Tom Udall read a statement that appeared on Exxon Mobil’s website on climate change: “The risk of climate change is clear, and the risk warrants action. Increasing carbon emissions, the atmosphere are having a warming effect. There is a broad, scientific, and policy consensus that action must be taken to further quantify and assess the risk.”

Tillerson took no exception to that statement, however, when Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked him about his personal view on climate change, Tillerson said he came to his current understanding of the “evolution of science” over the past 20 years.

“[I] came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken,” Tillerson added. “The type of action seem to be where the largest areas of debate exist in the public discourse.”

Corker stopped Tillerson, as he seemed to launch into a fairly candid answer, and specifically asked if Tillerson believed “human activity” causes climate change.

“The increase in the greenhouse concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson did not say whether humans were responsible for this increase, and his answer also promoted doubt around whether scientists are accurately predicting what will happen to the planet.

At least a half dozen people interrupted Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the morning and early afternoon. Multiple people held up banners with a Greenpeace logo that said, “Reject Rex.” They urged senators to block Exxon Mobil from gaining control of the State Department.

Greenpeace reacted to Tillerson’s nomination, “At this moment in time, choosing a man who knows the world through the single frame of the oil and gas industry may actually be more dangerous than picking somebody with no understanding of the world at all.”

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, condemned Tillerson’s corruption and support for environmental devastation. Pica noted U.S. states attorneys general are investigating Exxon Mobil for “deceiving the public and shareholders about the impacts of climate change.”

“ExxonMobil’s business partners include states whose armed military and police forces have violently cracked down on project opponents,” Pica stated. “A federal court in Washington, D.C. is currently hearing a case brought by Indonesian villagers that alleges Exxon Mobil is responsible for human rights violations committed by security forces including killings, beatings, torture, destruction of homes and properties.”

“In Papua New Guinea the government, Exxon Mobil’s partner in the PNG LNG project have deployed armed security forces to crack down on villagers protesting the project, and bullied villagers into allowing a key construction road to be built over the rubble before the deceased could be exhumed from under a landslide that killed at least 27 people caused by a quarry used by the project,” Pica acknowledged.

Founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, wrote, “All in all, it’s hard to imagine a single hire that could do more damage to the planet (though the rest of Trump’s cabinet will doubtless give him a run for his money). Making this man secretary of state rewards climate denial, further warps our foreign policy towards oil and does it at the precise moment when every bit of data screams that we should be going in the opposite direction.”

Although McKibben concluded, “The only consolation is that it removes all the window-dressing. Big Oil will run our foreign policy, right out in the open. In that sense, I suppose, Trump gets credit for a kind of barbaric transparency. When the CIA overthrew Mossadegh, at least they had a little shame about it. No more.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."