Here’s a review of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson’s Secretary of State hearing so far

Tillerson said he does not see climate change as a big national security threat.


Long-time ExxonMobil employee and former CEO Rex Tillerson‘s U.S. Secretary of State confirmation hearing has begun. As expected, it has created waves, covering topics from climate change, foreign policy in Russia and Ukraine, the Islamic State (ISIS), and far beyond.

His U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing has faced protests both on the outside and on the inside, including several hearing interruptions, with protestors removed from the room by the U.S. Capitol Police. Tillerson’s cozy ties to Russia have come under question by senators on both sides of the aisle and Democrats have peppered him with questions about his personal views, as well as Exxon’s views, on climate change.

A theme has developed: Tillerson has offered in-depth answers on foreign policy generally speaking, but punted for the most part on questions pertaining to his time heading up the world’s largest oil and gas company.

Climate Change

ExxonMobil has come under fire and under investigation by multiple state attorneys general for having long-held and well-studied knowledge of climate change dating back decades, while funding the climate change denial machine to the tune of $33 million between 1997-2015. Though not a dominant theme in the hearing, Tillerson was asked for his views on climate change by several senators.

His responses to those questions: a.) “the risk of climate change does exist” and “action should be taken”; b.) “The increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited”; c.) “I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table in the conversation on how to address threats of climate change. They do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone.”

However, Tillerson did not respond directly to a query about what Exxon knew about climate change when asked by Virginia Senator and Democratic Party Vice Presidential nominee, Tim Kaine.

Since I’m no longer with ExxonMobil, I can’t speak on their behalf,” Tillerson said. “The question would have to be put to ExxonMobil.”

Steve Kretzmann, Executive Director of Oil Change International, critiqued this response in a press release issued by his organization.

“Unsurprisingly, Tillerson essentially pled the fifth when asked about Exxon’s long history of denying climate science, explicitly refusing to answer the question, or accept any responsibility for the actions of the company of which he was CEO for the last decade,” said Kretzmann. “That’s not leadership, it’s cowardice fueled by greed. The record is clear: Exxon Knew.”

Heated Russia exchanges

One of the most heated exchanges came with U.S. Senator and 2016 Republican Party presidential nominee Marco Rubio, who pressed Tillerson on his views on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rubio pointed to Putin’s human rights and foreign policy track-record as Russia’s head-of-state and called him a “war criminal,” asking Tillerson if he agrees with that assessment.

After President-elect Donald Trump first nominated Tillerson Secretary of State, Rubio denounced the decision, pointing to the “Order of Friendship” award Tillerson won from Putin after signing a massive joint venture for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Russian Arctice and shale oil and gas hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) exploration in Siberia.

Tillerson signaled in his opening statement that, if confirmed as Secretary of State, he would hold a more balanced foreign policy posture toward Russia. That statement did not mention climate change, his company, or energy.

“Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options,” said Tillerson. “Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies. Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.”

While holding up the lobbying disclosure forms DeSmog reported in December, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked Tillerson about his company’s lobbying against U.S. sanctions toward Russia. Tillerson said he did not recall whether or not Exxon had lobbied for or against the sanctions, though the track record suggests it is very likely the company lobbied against the sanctions.

ISIS, Iraq, Saudi Arabia

ISIS also played a central role in Tillerson’s opening statement, with Tillerson stating, “Defeating ISIS must be our foremost priority in the Middle East.”

“The Middle East and its surrounding regions pose many challenges which require our attention, including Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” said Tillerson. “There are competing priorities in this region which must be and will be addressed, but they must not distract from our utmost mission of defeating ISIS.”

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) asked Tillerson for his views on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was spearheaded by the George W. Bush Administration. Tillerson said, in hindsight, what the U.S. did in Iraq started as a noble cause which has ended up destabilizing the region.

But Tillerson did not mention that his company profited heavily from the invasion and occupation of the country, which many credit with having planted the seeds of radicalization in Al-Qaeda and eventually ISIS.

Exxon also maintains a subsidiary in Saudi Arabia, ExxonMobil Saudi Arabia, based in a country which maintains a horrible human rights record and which many have pointed to as funding Islamic extremist groups around the world. In his second go-around with Rubio, Tillerson claimed he would need more information to determine whether Saudi Arabia is a human rights violator.

Stay tuned for live updates on the hearing here and over on Twitter at @DeSmogBlog and @SteveAHorn.

Update One: In an exchange with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Tillerson said he does not believe specific extreme weather events can be linked to climate change, also stating he does not see it as a big national security threat. The Pentagon, as reported here, disagrees.

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Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog and a freelance investigative journalist. He previously was a reporter and researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. In his free time, Steve is a competitive runner, with a personal best time of 2:43:04 in the 2009 Boston Marathon. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in political science and legal studies, his writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Guardian, Vice News, The Nation, Wisconsin Watch, Truth-Out, AlterNet and elsewhere.