There’s been no shortage of fiery reactions to President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, with some likening it to picking a tobacco company executive to serve as surgeon general.
But during a media telebriefing on Monday, environmental groups discussed one potential “silver lining”: If Tillerson accepts Trump’s Cabinet invitation, he must testify before Congress ― which will likely question him not only about his ties to Russia, but also his company’s decades-long, well-documented climate change cover-up.
Exxon Mobil is facing numerous investigations, including probes by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, into whether its executives lied to investors and committed fraud by covering up the risks of climate change. The Securities and Exchange Commission has also begun investigating how Exxon Mobil values future projects amid climate change and declining oil prices.
“It will be a moment for some serious on-the-record questioning ... and to begin to get out into the light the kind of things that the attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts seem to have been asking for and not getting from Exxon,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the environmental advocacy group 350.org, during the call. 350.org and Greenpeace are among a number of groups engaged in #ExxonKnew, a campaign that seeks to hold Exxon accountable for its role in climate change.
“At the very least, there will be some serious tension brought to bear,” McKibben said.
In June, Exxon Mobil filed a lawsuit against Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in an effort to block her office’s investigation.
Kathy Mulvey, the climate accountability campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it’s “highly ironic” that while Massachusetts’ top law enforcement official was being ordered to appear in Texas federal court for a deposition in the Exxon Mobil case, the oil company’s CEO was interviewing for a job as the future president’s chief foreign affairs adviser.
A day before Trump officially announced Tillerson as his pick, Mulvey said that nominating the Exxon Mobil CEO as secretary of state “would signal a lack of concern by president-elect Trump for enforcement of laws against fraud and misleading consumers and shareholders.”
Exxon Mobil and its Republican allies in Washington, namely Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, claim that the New York and Massachusetts probes are politically motivated and “a “blatant effort to silence free speech.”
The corporation says it has publicly recognized the risk of climate change for more than a decade. Yet industry documents exposed by news outlets and advocacy groups point to a long history of denial and deception.
Last year, InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times found that Exxon Mobil executives were aware of the climate risks associated with carbon dioxide emissions and funded research to cover up those risks and block solutions.
A separate investigation by the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law uncovered documents showing that the oil industry, including Humble Oil (now Exxon Mobil Corp.), was aware of the potential link between fossil fuels and carbon emissions no later than 1957. Big Oil was “shaping science to shape public opinion” as early as the 1940s, the report found.
Ultimately, Tillerson’s confirmation as secretary of state would not make the Exxon Mobil probes disappear, according to Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
“These investigations are definitely bigger than Tillerson,” she said on Monday. “He’s a big part of it, but the investigations are into Exxon and those must continue regardless of the secretary of state appointment.”
Although environmental groups are eyeing Tillerson’s upcoming confirmation hearing as an opportunity to find out what Exxon Mobil knew about climate change and when, they have not minced words about the threat he poses ― along with Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency ― to the environment and efforts to combat global warming.
There’s a “real concern” Trump is “creating a government of, by and for the oil and gas industry,” Mulvey said.