Reports that Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. Secretary of State come as his Irving-based company is mixed up in legal intrigue at home. Exxon Mobil is hoping a Texas court will halt a high-profile probe of its record on climate change.
Here's a guide to the energy giant’s highly politicized battle, which has included cameos from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
But first, a bit about Tillerson
Tillerson, 64, was born in Wichita Falls and has worked for Exxon Mobil — the world’s largest oil producer and most valuable publicly traded oil company — his entire career. He was hired as a production engineer in 1975, the same year he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He has held a variety of engineering and managerial positions over the decades, including overseeing the company’s exploration and production holdings in Yemen, Thailand and Russia (his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin are already drawing scrutiny). Tillerson became chairman and CEO of Exxon in 2006 and was planning to retire next year when he turns 65, the company's mandatory retirement age. He is an Eagle Scout whose father worked as an executive for the Boy Scouts of America (Tillerson served as the organization’s president from 2010 to 2012). He has four children, three of whom have studied engineering at UT.
Who is Exxon battling?
Earlier this year, a group of state attorneys general said they would investigate whether Exxon violated consumer protection and securities laws by downplaying the risks of manmade climate change — to the public and shareholders — even as its own scientists warned company executives of the consequences of burning fossil fuels and published research along those lines. Their announcement followed a series of reports by the Los Angeles Times, Inside Climate News and other outlets revealing inconsistencies in the ways Exxon approached climate change in-house and publicly dating back to the 1970s.
At least three Democratic attorneys general (from New York, California and Massachusetts) have been probing this issue over the year. U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker, a political independent, has also launched an investigation.
The effort has emerged counter to another, GOP-led legal crusade against President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other regulatory efforts to combat climate change, which have split state attorneys general mostly along party lines.
Exxon has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. “This is a preposterous, illogical thesis that we somehow knew all there was to know about science before it was developed and before the rest of the world’s experts,” company spokesman Alan Jeffers told the Tribune earlier this year.
In September, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was also investigating the company — focusing on how the company calculates the impact of climate change on its assets.
What’s happening in the Texas court right now?
In June, Exxon sued Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Healey, seeking to block her demand for decades of internal records records related to the company’s understanding of climate change. The company later added to the complaint New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is also seeking internal records. The case is in a U.S. district court in Fort Worth.
Exxon argues in court filings that the two states have “joined together with each other as well as others known and unknown to conduct improper and politically motivated investigations of Exxon Mobil in a coordinated effort to silence and intimidate one side of the public policy debate on how to address climate change.”
Responding in court, Healey called the lawsuit “a calculated effort to avoid and delay the company’s compliance with a duly authorized and lawful civil investigative demand” and said she’s demanding the records under the belief that “Exxon has engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices that have harmed Massachusetts investors and consumers.” Schneiderman, meanwhile, asked U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade to drop the complaint against him, in part because Exxon had already turned over some documents to New York, pursuant to its own subpoena.
Last month, in a twist, Kinkeade ordered Healey to allow Exxon’s lawyers to question her under oath (that is scheduled to happen on Tuesday.) The order also told Schneiderman to be available.
Healey argued that such a move would “set a troubling precedent” by allowing Exxon to “investigate the investigator” and “effectively halt law state enforcement efforts” in a relatively friendly federal court. But last week, Kinkeade denied her motion to vacate the deposition order.
Where does Ken Paxton fit in?
After Exxon asked a Texas court to thwart the U.S. Virgin Islands’ similar subpoena for climate records, Paxton and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange intervened in the case.
At a May press conference, Paxton described the probe as an out-of-stater’s trampling of a Texan’s First Amendment rights. Several legal experts described the decision to thrust Texas into the company’s legal battle as incredibly unorthodox.
Walker, the Virgin Islands Attorney General, ultimately withdrew his subpoena, and Paxton and Strange dropped their legal action.
Paxton has also sided with Exxon in the Massachusetts case. In September, he filed a brief with 10 other attorneys general that backs the company’s position.
Have other Texas officials rushed to Exxon’s defense?
You betcha. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, has been particularly active on Exxon’s behalf. He has convened a Congressional hearing on the matter and has demanded documents from the state attorneys general that would reveal the inner workings of their probes.
Does Exxon Mobil currently refute the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are accelerating climate change?
Perhaps surprisingly to some folks: no.
Unlike many Texas Republicans, Exxon Mobil says it outwardly accepts the science and it has for more than a decade.
“The risk of climate change is clear, and the risk warrants action,” the company’s website says. “Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect.”
For years now, Tillerson has expressed support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a means of reducing earth-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
In a 2009 speech in Washington D.C., he called it “the most efficient means of reflecting the cost of carbon in all economic decisions — from investments made by companies to fuel their requirements to the product choices made by consumers.”
“A carbon tax may be better suited for setting a uniform standard to hold all nations accountable,” he said.
Still, “Tillerson has not endorsed the bold actions needed to combat climate change,” said Daniel Cohan, a Rice University environmental engineering professor who studies climate and energy.
How do Tillerson’s views compare to others he might work with in Trump’s cabinet?
In an email, Cohan called it “ironic” that an Exxon CEO ranks “greener than other Trump picks who deny the realities of climate change.”
Indeed, compared to some of Trump’s other high-profile appointments, Tillerson’s climate views are more progressive. Last week, the president-elect tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. He, along with Texas’ past two Republican attorneys general, has been a key player in the GOP’s legal crusade against Obama’s climate change policies, suing the EPA multiple times during his tenure.
“Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind,” Pruitt wrote in The National Review earlier this year.
In fact, an overwhelming majority of scientists believe that human activity is causing global warming.
Trump has vowed to unwind environmental policies the Obama administration has put in place to combat global warming, including a sweeping plan that would require states to slash earth-warming carbon emissions by shifting from coal power to natural gas and renewables over the next 15 years. He has dismissed the Clean Power Plan as a “war on coal” and also cast doubt on the established science behind the global warming, saying in a 2012 tweet that it is a concept “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” On the campaign train he also promised to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement that nearly 200 countries inked last December.
Trump softened his climate-doubting rhetoric somewhat in a post-election interview with The New York Times, saying he thinks “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. But he said “It depends on how much. It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies. You have to understand, our companies are noncompetitive right now.”
On Friday, The Times reported that Trump’s transition team was circulating “an unusual 74-point questionnaire at the Department of Energy that requests the names of all employees and contractors who have attended climate change policy conferences, as well as emails and documents associated with the conferences.”
The questionnaire “suggests the Trump administration plans a witch hunt for civil servants who’ve simply been doing their jobs,” Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, told the Times in a statement.
Disclosure: ExxonMobil has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. Find a full list of donors and sponsors here.