Before he becomes Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson will be deposed by attorneys for Our Children’s Trust. The lawyers want to know what Tillerson — who is currently CEO of ExxonMobil — knew about the effect of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels and when did he know it. His answers probably won’t affect his candidacy for the position of Secretary of State, given that Republicans have full control over the Senate. But they could shed light on the giant oil company’s efforts over the past 40 years or more to influence the climate change debate by funding an array of so-called think tanks like The American Petroleum Institute. Those organizations specialize in reports and studies whose results are bought and paid for in advance by wealthy benefactors like ExxonMobil.
The suit was filed in federal court in Oregon last year by lawyers representing 21 children and teenagers. They seeking to prove that oil and gas industry groups “have known about the dangers of climate change since the 1960’s and have successfully worked to prevent the government” from taking action. In fact, the fossil fuel companies have employed some of the same people who helped the tobacco industry obfuscate and deny the facts about cigarettes and health to buttress their own cause. The young plaintiffs claim that by perpetuating the use of fossil fuels, the government has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. They won an important victory in November when an Oregon federal judge rejected the government’s request to dismiss their lawsuit.
Tillerson, who was a director and recent chairman-elect of the American Petroleum Institute, will be questioned about his role and that of his company in contributing to global environmental damage. One of Exxon’s senior scientists noted in 1977 — 11 years before a NASA scientist sounded the alarm about global warming during congressional testimony — that “the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”
“Rex Tillerson is one of the most knowledgeable executives in the fossil fuel world on the role of his industry alongside our federal government in causing climate change and endangering my youth plaintiffs and all future generations,” Julia Olson, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in the statement. “We intend to use his deposition to uncover his and others’ culpability, on behalf of these defendants.”
In fact, Exxon was once a prime mover in research into building hybrid cars. That was in the 1970’s after the Arab oil embargoes rocked the economies of the nations in the industrialized world. There is a good chance that research was instrumental in getting the first Toyota Prius on the road. But Exxon suddenly shut down all such fuel efficiency research in the early 80’s and began funding campaigns to smear climate scientists instead. The plaintiffs’ attorneys would surely like to know more about how and why that abrupt shift in corporate philosophy occurred.
In the past few years, ExxonMobil has been softening its stance on climate change somewhat. In a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose, Tillerson admitted climate change was “serious risk.” He went on to say, “It’s clear that there is an impact of carbon dioxide emissions. What’s not clear is our ability to measure with a great degree of accuracy or certainty exactly how large that impact will be.”
Despite those words, ExxonMobil has been aggressively opposing the release of any information from company records as demanded by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York as part of law suits those two states are preparing against the world’s largest oil company. Young plaintiffs have been successful in similar suits filed in state courts in Washington and Massachusetts.