Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, refused to say what the company knew about climate change—and when—despite an insistent line of questioning from Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.
Kaine pointed to a slew of recent press investigations that have asserted Exxon’s in-house climate scientists knew about the dangers of human-caused climate change by the late 1970s. Both The Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News have found that while Exxon long led the way on climate research, it began sowing public doubts about climate science by 1990. Eventually, it funded groups who publicly promulgated climate denial, they reported. Exxon denies the allegations.
“ExxonMobil concluded as early as the 1970s that pollution from CO₂ released by the burning of fossil fuels was affecting the climate in a potentially disruptive way,” Kaine said, citing the reports. “Despite this knowledge, ExxonMobil took public positions against the scientific consensus regarding climate science.”
This all happened during your tenure in the company, Kaine said. Are these allegations true of false?
“Senator, since I’m no longer with ExxonMobil, I’m in no position to speak on their behalf. The question would have to be put to them,” Tillerson replied.
Kaine said he wasn’t looking for ExxonMobil’s response: “You were with the company for 42 years?”
“That is correct,” Tillerson said.
And you were in management or an executive role for more than half of that time, Kaine asserted.
“For approximately half the time,” Tillerson said.
“And you became CEO in 2006?”
“Correct,” Tillerson said.
Kaine asked his question again—so are the allegations true or false?—and Tillerson again demurred.
“Let me ask you, do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?” Kaine said.
“A little of both,” Tillerson said.
The room guffawed.
“I have a hard time believing you lack the knowledge to answer my question, but that’s an editorial comment, just as your comment was an editorial comment,” Kaine said. He followed up by asking whether Tillerson was still bound by a confidentiality agreement. Tillerson said he wasn’t, but that he would have to check with a lawyer.
It won’t be the last time that we hear about whether Exxon knew about the reality of climate change before most of the American public did. Eric Schneiderman, New York’s state attorney general, is using racketeering laws to investigate Exxon’s history of climate denial; he is currently fighting for access to the company’s climate files. And it was in response to that lawsuit that another state attorney general, Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, wrote an op-ed for the National Review seeding doubts about climate change and rejecting Schneiderman’s legal approach.
This time next month, Pruitt, who is now Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Tillerson could be more than allies in the public sphere. They could be colleagues in Donald Trump’s Cabinet.