Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump‘s nominee for Secretary of State, is the CEO and chairman of ExxonMobil Corporation. Tillerson has had a complicated relationship with the issue of climate change and global warming. On one hand, he’s supported a carbon tax, but has also suggested that environmentalists are overreacting and that risks of burning fossil fuels is manageable.
ExxonMobil is also under investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for allegedly lying to investors and the public about the impact of climate change. The allegation is that Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change even as it backed dubious research about climate change.
Here’s a look at Tillerson and ExxonMobil’s views on climate change.
1. ExxonMobil Is Under Investigation for Lying to Investors & the Public About Climate Change
In November 2015, The New York Times reported that ExxonMobil is under investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He issued a subpoena for financial records, emails and other documents.
The Times reported that the investigation is focusing on Exxon’s possible knowledge that climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels would have a damaging impact on the world, while it still funded outside groups that questioned climate science.
“We unequivocally reject the allegations that Exxon Mobil has suppressed climate change research,” Kenneth P. Cohen, vice president for public affairs at Exxon Mobil, told the Times. He explained to the Times that the company has backed mainstream climate scientists for over 40 years and published scientific papers about it as well. Cohen told the Times that the company has explained climate risks to investors.
In an interview with the Times in August 2016, Schneiderman said that his investigation is focusing on Exxon’s past statements, not recent ones. He told the Times that his office is specifically looking into a 2014 report from the company, in which it said they would not have to leave unused oil reserves behind, despite global efforts to stop climate change.
“If it turns out to be wrong, that’s not fraud, that’s wrong,” Alan Jeffers, an Exxon spokesman, told the Times of the 2014 report. “That’s why we adjust our outlook every year, and that’s why we issue the annual forecast publicly, so people can know the basis of our forecasting.”
“The allegations are based on the false premise that ExxonMobil reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts and before the science itself had matured, and then withheld it from the broader scientific community,” the company wrote of Schneiderman’s investigation in a March 2016 statement. “Such a claim is preposterous.”
2. When Asked if ExxonMobil Misled the Public on Climate Change, Tillerson Said ‘Nothing Could be Further From the Truth’
Before Schneiderman’s investigation began, Inside Climate News published an extensive report in September 2015 about how ExxonMobil has been conducting climate change research since the 1970s and had learned the effects of burning fossil fuels. A few weeks later, The Los Angeles Times published its own report, noting that Exxon went from a leader in climate-change science in the 1980s to a different position in the 1990s.
Tillerson went on Fox Business News to deny these allegations.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Tillerson told the network.
“They’re dealing with a period of time that happened decades ago,” Tillerson told Fox. “I’m not sure how helpful it would be for me to talk about it, particularly as we’re leading up to some very important meetings that are going to occur in Paris here in just a few weeks. I don’t want to be a distraction. I really don’t want this to be a distraction. There’s some serious issues that need to be talked about.”
Tillerson suggested that these reports could be a “distraction” before the Paris Climate Agreement was reached. Surprisingly, ExxonMobil did release a statement on November 4 showing support for the Paris agreement.
“ExxonMobil supports the work of the Paris signatories, acknowledges the ambitious goals of this agreement and believes the company has a constructive role to play in developing solutions,” the statement reads. “We have been working for many years to reduce emissions in our operations and provide products that help consumers reduce their emissions.”
3. Tillerson Once Referred to Global Warming as an ‘Engineering Problem’ That Has ‘Engineering Solutions’
In June 2012, Tillerson spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in its CEO Speaker Series. Tillerson, who has a civil engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin, described climate change as an “engineering problem” that humans can somehow adapt to.
“Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that,” Tillerson said. “It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don’t — the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.”
Tillerson continued, “We have to be efficient and we have to manage it, but we also need to look at the other side of the engineering solution, which is how are we going to adapt to it. And there are solutions. It’s not a problem that we can’t solve.”
He later said that there are “much more pressing priorities” that the human race has to deal with, including poverty, lack of access to electricity and hunger.
“There are more people’s health being dramatically affected because they could — they don’t even have access to fossil fuels to burn,” Tillerson said in the speech. “They’d love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably.”
Tillerson went on to blame a public that is “illiterate” in math, science and engineering for overblowing the effects of climate change. “We’re not particularly aided in our efforts by the broad-based media, because it’s a lot sexier to write the fear stories than it is to write the here’s-how-you-manage-it story,” Tillerson said during that talk.
4. Tillerson Supports a Carbon Tax to Replace ‘Largely Ineffective Regulations’
Tillerson and ExxonMobil have expressed support for a carbon dioxide tax, but mostly because it would be easier than having to deal with a multitude of different taxes and would be better than other regulations.
Tillerson first showed support for the carbon tax in a 2009 speech, in which he called it “a more direct … a more transparent … and a more effective approach.”
“It avoids the costs and complexity of having to build a new market for securities traders or the necessity of adding a new layer of regulators and administrators to police companies and consumers,” Tillerson explained in his 2009 speech. “And a carbon tax can be more easily implemented. It could be levied under the current tax code without requiring significant new infrastructure or enforcement bureaucracies.”
He also said that a carbon tax wouldn’t need a large government to implement. “There should be reductions or changes to other taxes – such as income or excise taxes – to offset the impacts of the carbon tax on the economy,” he said in 2009.
In an October 2016 speech in London, Tillerson again explained why Exxon backs a carbon tax, essentially repeating his points from seven years ago.
“Replacing the hodge-podge of current, largely ineffective regulations with a revenue-neutral carbon tax would ensure a uniform and predictable cost of carbon across the economy. It would allow market forces to drive solutions,” Tillerson said in the October 2016 speech. “It would maximize transparency, reduce administrative complexity, promote global participation and easily adjust to future developments in our understanding of climate science as well as the policy consequences of these actions.”
In that 2016 speech, Tillerson also explained that Exxon is using methods like cogeneration to be more energy efficient. “By capturing the heat from electricity generation for use in refining and chemical processing, we are able to operate more efficiently and reduce our overall carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.
5. ExxonMobil’s Shareholders Voted Down Climate Change Issues During the 2016 Annual Meeting
Tillerson might acknowledge the existence of climate change and global warming, but Exxon has been criticized for taking action. According to the proxy voting results from the 2016 annual meeting, investors voted down climate change issues. They voted against adding a climate change expert to the board, against creating a report on the impacts of climate change policies and against creating a policy to limit global warming to 2o C.
We believe ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors would benefit by addressing the impact of climate change on its business at its most strategic level by electing to its Board independent specialists versed in all business aspects of climate change,” on the issue of adding a climate expert. “Just one authoritative figure with acknowledged expertise and standing could perform a valuable role in ways that would enable the Board to more effectively address the environmental issues and risks inherent in its present business model regarding climate change. It would also help ensure that the highest levels of attention are focused on developing environmental standards for new projects. In comparison, banks which had inadequate expertise on their boards to deal with risks related to new financial instruments and transactions often paid a huge price with a major impact on shareholder value.
As for why the board voted against limiting global warming to 2o C, the proxy statement reads:
The Board believes the Company has an obligation to shareholders to continue to invest in economically attractive energy sources in an environmentally responsible manner. The Board further believes the Company’s capabilities are best utilized finding practical, achievable solutions to address climate change risks consistent with the Company’s mandate, rather than focusing on a future global temperature stabilization outcome that ultimately will be dictated by many variables beyond the Company’s control.
In her statement, Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard said:
Appointing Rex Tillerson to be our chief diplomat is an affront to global progress and will place the US economy, our security, and our standing in the world in the same failing predicament Exxon is in right now. The global community continues to send a strong, collective message that it is ditching fossil fuels for clean energy. Rex Tillerson hid climate science so he could cash in on disaster, instead of transitioning his company to a position of true leadership. This appointment is a desperate grab for power by a failing industry that is perfectly fine bringing the American people down with it.