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Tillerson Testifies In Landmark Climate Case, Denies Exxon’s Deception

Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of State, at his confirmation hearing
Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of State, at his confirmation hearing. (Photo: Office of the President-elect)

Rex Tillerson testified Tuesday in a New York lawsuit that could be a turning point for prosecuting powerful actors who knowingly deceived others about climate change.

Rex Tillerson, who served as CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006-2016 before a short-lived term as the Trump administration’s Secretary of State, denied in court on Tuesday that his former company misled investors about the severity of the climate crisis. Critics point to the disparity between the fossil fuel giant’s public and private communications during Tillerson’s tenure, as well as his usage of a secret alias to obscure emails discussing the topic, as evidence that the former executive lied in court.

The landmark securities fraud case is just the “second time a climate case has gone to trial in the US,” notes the Guardian’s Oliver Milman. New York state attorney general Leticia James is suing Exxon for deceiving investors about the financial impact of climate change.

“New York’s lawsuit accuses Exxon of using a public ‘proxy cost’ of up to $80 per ton of carbon emissions to account for regulations that would limit planet-warming emissions, while internally using figures of $40 a ton, or nothing at all, to allow it to make more environmentally damaging investments,” reports Milman.

Tillerson denied culpability for the difference between private and public metrics, saying: “We don’t know how else to model what future policy impacts might be. But whatever policies are, ultimately they come back to either your revenues or your costs.”

ExxonMobil’s History of Climate Change Deception

The company has a long history of concealing its knowledge about climate change. ExxonMobil’s scientists warned of the danger carbon emissions posed to the planet in the 1980s, but the company’s leadership concealed their findings and sponsored climate denial misinformation campaigns that contradicted their own research for decades.

During his time as CEO, Tillerson obscured internal communications concerning the risks of climate change by using the alias “Wayne Tracker.” Despite being perhaps the most incriminating evidence of Tillerson’s efforts to mislead others about his business’s knowledge of climate change, prosecutors abstained from questioning the former CEO about his alias during the hearing Wednesday.

In August 2017 two Harvard researchers published a peer-reviewed analysis of 40 years of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications, demonstrating a discrepancy between their public position and the private position discussed between their scientists and executives. The same year, Exxon spent more than $30 million funding think tanks that spread doubt about climate change.

In February 2017 former and current ExxonMobil employees sued the corporation for misleading them and making false statements about climate change. ExxonMobil filed a counter lawsuit challenging the right of state attorneys to investigate their internal communications, arguing that its public statements discrediting the science provided by its own researchers constituted free speech. In January 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear ExxonMobil’s appeal.

Shareholders have also pressured the fossil fuel giant to be more transparent about the dangers its business model poses in accelerating climate change. Despite its public support for the Paris Agreement, the company plans to extract and sell the entire 25 billion barrels in its reserves while continuing to seek new sources.

Tillerson As Secretary Of State

Rex Tillerson received a $180 million severance package from the oil conglomerate before becoming America’s chief diplomat in 2017. His former employer reported lobbying expenditures of $11.4 million, not including expenditures for political candidates, the same year.

One of the Trump administration’s first acts was the elimination of a pending SEC rule that would have required fossil fuel companies to disclose information about oil and gas payments to foreign countries.

ExxonMobil had previously lobbied against the rule, designed to limit bribery to corrupt governments during Tillerson’s tenure as CEO. Shortly after eliminating the rule, the Trump Administration withdrew from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, another effort to restrain corruption and promote transparency in the fossil fuel sector.

Tillerson was later replaced by Mike Pompeo, called the “Congressman from Koch” for his ties to the Koch Brothers, who fund a vast network of think tanks that deny climate science.

Future Of Climate Litigation

Critics believe the landmark case marks a turning point where powerful actors who knowingly deceived others about climate change will be viewed as criminals.

“The attention this case received certainly places a harsh light on Exxon which must make them uncomfortable,” Michael Gerrard, an expert in climate law at Columbia University, told the Guardian. “They tried for years to stop this case from happening. This is all at least as much about reputation as it is about money.”

“As wildfires rage across California and the West, it’s momentous to see Exxon’s former CEO in court, on the witness stand, testifying to his role in lying to investors about climate-related risks,” Dominique Thomas, 350.org’s northeast regional organizer, told Common Dreams. “The demand to make Exxon pay for climate chaos is only getting louder.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders recently told CNBC’s John Harwood he would prosecute “the executives of Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel industries” who “knew that the product that they were producing was causing climate change and in fact helping to destroy this planet” if elected president.

John Harwood: You put them in the same category as tobacco executives.

Bernie Sanders: Exactly. If you are producing a product and you don’t know that it’s causing harm, that’s forgivable. But if you are like the tobacco industry — we go before Congress, we swear that all of our research has shown that there is not a problem with tobacco causing cancer or heart disease. They lied. My father died because he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Millions of people are in the same boat. These are liars. These are criminals.

Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a co-owner Citizen Truth.

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