Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing has been a fairly staid affair so far. But one relatively intense exchange came when Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine pressed him on ExxonMobil’s history on climate change.
As anyone who has read the blockbuster investigations from Inside Climate News and the LA Times knows, documents show that Exxon’s scientists were aware of the scientific consensus on the threat of climate change way back in the 1970s. Exxon did its own research on the subject and made plans to address it.
But then, toward the end of the ’80s, Exxon dialed back its research and started funding right-wing groups that denied climate change altogether. (Tillerson joined Exxon in 1975 and became CEO in 2006.)
In short, activists charge, Exxon deliberately lied and misled both the public and its shareholders about the climate threat. A coalition of state attorneys general is now investigating Exxon. (You can get all the details at ExxonKnew.org.) Exxon has responded vigorously, deposing the attorneys general and questioning their motives.
Kaine attempted to get Tillerson to weigh in on this fight and Tillerson — in one of his few moments of blunt near-anger — simply refused.
"Senator, since I’m no longer with Exxon Mobil, I’m in no position to speak on their behalf,” he said.
Kaine pressed: "Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or refuse to answer my question?"
Tillerson responded: "A little of both."
At least he’s honest! That was one of several times that Tillerson declined to answer for Exxon’s actions — arguably a disingenuous strategy, but probably an effective one.
Other than that, little news was made on climate change at the hearing (at least so far). The subject came up a few times, but Tillerson stuck to what has been his public position for years. He acknowledged that “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect,” but hedged with the disclaimer that “our abilities to predict that effect are very limited.”
When asked about Exxon’s previous support for a carbon tax, he took pains to note that a) it was in response to a national cap-and-trade plan, not a spontaneous suggestion, and b) the tax must be revenue-neutral. (For more on the perpetual lure of a revenue-neutral carbon tax, see this post.)
On international climate policy — the area where Tillerson might actually have some influence — he confined himself to saying that the US should keep a “seat at the table,” which probably means he won’t push to withdraw from the Paris agreement. But he also said that no US climate actions should disadvantage any US business, which probably means the administration will do nothing to reduce emissions.