Former ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson spent hours fielding questions in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing today. There was plenty of ducking and dodging among the answering but when it came to climate-related questions that were too tough to evade gracefully, specifically on #ExxonKnew, he simply refused to answer.
But first, the good news. When asked about the Paris Agreement, Tillerson said that he thinks the U.S. should “have a seat at the table” when it comes to international negotiations, though he didn’t explicitly state his support for the Agreement. Reading between the lines, this could be interpreted to mean the new administration isn’t planning to pull the U.S. out of the UNFCCC, the overarching U.N. climate treaty, to scuttle Paris.
He also said the agreement “looks like a treaty,” suggesting the administration might be considering sending it to the Senate for approval. It’s unclear what that would mean, though, since U.S. participation didn’t need Congressional approval. So perhaps we’ll see a slow walk on Paris, as opposed to abandoning the UNFCCC.
When asked about it again later in the afternoon, Tillerson used the same reasoning but referred to the Agreement itself, saying that since so many countries have signed on, “we’re better served by being at that table.” This sounds like he backs the Agreement, a positive step. But since Trump will have the final say, let’s not consider this too strong a commitment.
Tillerson also didn’t commit to zeroing out the US contribution to the Green Climate Fund, instead saying the administration will take a “bottom up” approach to spending.
In what may have been an act of perjury, Tillerson claimed that, to his knowledge, Exxon has never lobbied against sanctions. Politico reporting suggests that’s not true, as do ExxonMobil’s own filings. Senator Christopher Murphy pointed out that he recalls fielding a call from Tillerson himself on sanctions, and later pointed to Exxon’s 14 filings that disclose lobbying on sanctions. Exxon’s explanation, according to a statement, is that they were lobbying about the impacts of the sanctions, not necessarily against them.
The first protester said, “I reject you. My home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy!” before being removed. Another called on senators not to “let Exxon run the State Department!” A third protester chanted as she was hauled off: “Senators: be brave! Stand up for the vulnerable! Reject this man!” A fourth demanded Rex’s rejection and asked senators to stand up for their constituents.
Sen. Tom Udall asked Tillerson about ExxonMobil’s position on the reality of climate change, and Tillerson indicated he generally agrees with it. Further, he and Trump have talked about the issue, though Trump of course has the final say. Udall then asked about Exxon’s support of a carbon tax, which Tillerson explained was a response to the cap and trade debate, and carefully qualified his statements.
When pressed by Senator Corker for a succinct description of his personal view on climate change, Tillerson indicated his belief is that humans are having an impact on rising greenhouse gas concentrations, but our ability to predict the outcome of this increase is very limited. In other words, he gave he downplayed impacts by acknowledging concentrations of GHGs, but not temperature increases.
Senator Tim Kaine asked specifically about the NY Review of Books two-parter on the Rockefeller Family Fund, the LA Times story, and InsideClimate News investigations into the matter. When pressed directly on whether those allegations are true or false, Tillerson dodged by saying he can’t speak on Exxon’s behalf.
Kaine pushed him: “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?” Tillerson responded: “A little of both.” The room laughed.
Though remaining civil out loud, on Twitter Kaine made the conclusion clear: “It’s shameful Tillerson refused to answer my questions on his company’s role in funding phony climate science. Bottom line: #ExxonKnew.” 350.org Executive Director Mary Beove was more emphatic, releasing a statement that began saying, “Tillerson is still lying about what Exxon knew about climate change.”
Later, Senator Markey brought up Exxon’s extensive Russian holdings (“an area the size of Wyoming”), the allegations of Russia’s interference in the election and the potential for further sanctions or the lifting of existing sanctions, which would lead to massive profits for ExxonMobil and Rosneft. Tillerson demurred on that, as well as on the possibility of recusing himself of all Exxon-related decisions — beyond the mandatory one-year period — as a way to ease concerns conflicts of interest. Tillerson committed only to seeking and following appropriate ethical guidance.
Then, Markey got into the #ExxonKnew fight again, referring specifically to the investigation by his own state’s Attorney General Maura Healey and Exxon’s suit against her. Markey asked Tillerson to reassure Americans that despite Exxon’s actions to delay climate action, US leadership will continue on climate change, particularly at the State Department.
Tillerson’s response was that there will be a review of the policies, and he feels free to express his views to Trump. He reiterated the statement about the U.S. needing a seat at the table, but fell well short of a reassuring statement, citing “American competitiveness” as a major concern. He would return to the “seat at the table” line multiple times, yet consistently stopped short of saying America should take a leadership role.
In a later round of questions, Markey asked Tillerson if he sees climate change as a national security issue. He said, “I don’t see it as the imminent threat that some others do.” As Rebecca Leber points out, those “others” include the Department of Defense.
A follow-up question referenced the Syrian drought, to which Tillerson responded that the facts on the ground are “indisputable” but the science behind the climate connection is “inconclusive.” On climate increasing the odds of extreme weather, he said, “There’s some literature that suggests that. There’s other literature that says it’s inconclusive.” As the good senator reminded him, that literature is far more one-sided than Tillerson’s response suggests.
Senator Shaheen pointed out the economic impacts of New Hampshire’s increasing rainfall and asked about the 2009 G-20 agreement to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. With companies like ExxonMobil reaping sizable profits, do they need subsidies? What would he do about phasing out subsidies?
“I’m not aware of anything the fossil fuel industry gets that I would characterize as a subsidy” Tillerson responded, saying instead it’s just how the tax code is applied to the industry. And the only way to get rid of those subsidies for oil and gas — which reportedly amount to $17 billion a year — would be tax reform. So, as the Secretary of State, that’s how he would approach the issue, waiting to see other countries fulfill their commitment to reduce subsidies before the United States.
At one point Markey suggested that if this bizarre situation were flipped, and the Sierra Club chief were appointed as ExxonMobil CEO, shareholders might be concerned. Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune tweeted that he “would never take that job, and Tillerson should never be given this one.”
We’ll see if the Senate agrees.
Phil Newell writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.