An ex-chief executive of ExxonMobil, the largest oil and gas company in the country, took the stand Wednesday to defend his former firm against accusations of misleading investors about the threat climate change posed to its bottom line.
Rex Tillerson, who led Exxon for a decade before serving for a tumultuous year as President Trump’s first secretary of state, rejected the charges from the state of New York and testified that his former company took climate change seriously during his tenure.
“We knew it was a serious issue and we knew it was one that's going to be with us now forever more,” he said in court on Wednesday. “It's not something that was just suddenly going to disappear off of our concern list because it is going to be with us for certainly well beyond my lifetime.”
Under cross examination, Tillerson denied the allegations and told the court that under his watch Exxon supported a federal tax on carbon emissions, as well as U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord. Tillerson was among a handful of top Trump officials who unsuccessfully urged the president to stay in the Paris agreement.
Even while acknowledging the reality of climate change, Tillerson said he knows of no time concern about the potential cost associated with releasing carbon prevented Exxon from going forward with a drilling or refining project.
“I don't ever recall [greenhouse gas] cost being a determining factor in any of the decisions we made,” Tillerson said.
But prosecutors have put Tillerson near the center of what they allege was a scheme to deceive shareholders about the future profitability of the company because of such climate-warming emissions.
On the line for the energy giant are potentially millions of dollars in penalties as well as a blow to the reputation of Exxon, which soon after Tillerson took over as CEO in 2006 acknowledged that climate change is real. Defeat also opens the door for more investigations and lawsuits against Exxon and other oil majors over climate change.
But a win by Exxon will make other state and local governments think twice before suing the oil giant, which has a reputation for not settling lawsuits.
Often punctuated by blunt “yes,” “no” or “I don’t recall” answers, Tillerson's testimony was a remarkable moment for a company that through the 1990s underplayed climate science as well as for an environmental protest movement that for years has painted Exxon as its ultimate boogieman.
“Rex Tillerson is a climate criminal,” said Dominique Thomas, a regional organizer for the green group 350.org, which last week helped organize protests outside the courthouse. “As wildfires rage across California and the West, it’s momentous to see Exxon’s former CEO in court.”
Under Tillerson’s watch, Exxon calculated in two different ways how future regulations on releasing carbon dioxide — a byproduct of burning gasoline and other Exxon-made fuels — could affect the company. The goal, he said, was to find the “best assessment.”
But it’s that assessment — or assessments, plural — that are at the heart of the securities-fraud case nrought by New York against against the oil giant.
New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) says Exxon kept two sets of books for estimating those regulatory costs. Her office is alleging that by doing so, Exxon may have duped the investing public by underplaying just how exposed the multinational oil company was to a deluge of climate-related regulations around the world.
One estimate for the cost of complying with future rules was presented to investors and suggested the company was taking into account potentially aggressive action from developed countries when making investment decisions.
But the other cost estimate, used internally, was much lower and led Exxon planners to invest in projects extracting particularly dirty fuels, such as tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta, that may one day be subject to stiff regulations.
Tillerson and Exxon said they did nothing wrong in gauging future climate costs. Exxon’s two different estimates, Tillerson said, “were for different uses within the organization.”
“That's what's going to give you your best assessment, is to consider both of them and that's why we structured it that way,” Tillerson said on the stand.
New York prosecutors spent their time questioning Tillerson himself rather focusing on his alias: “Wayne Tracker.”
In the millions of Exxon documents used by to build the case, James's staff found that Tillerson used a second email address under the pseudonym Wayne Tracker to discuss the proxy carbon prices and other issues. (Wayne is Tillerson’s middle name.)
During the investigation, the attorney general's office savaged Exxon for failing to turn over the Wayne Tracker emails. With no court order forcing Exxon to hold those old emails, many of them were deleted under a standard company policy. Exxon said the deletion was unintentional and New York Supreme Court Judge Barry Ostrager, who is overseeing the trial, found no fault.
Despite the pretrial drama, the attorney general’s office did not ask Tillerson about the email account.
During his testimony, Tillerson expressed sympathy for current Exxon employees entangled in the lawsuit. “I feel badly for the men and women of the ExxonMobil Corporation … because they're being accused of a fraud as well, and it is not fair to them,” he said.
Tillerson’s testimony comes during the second week of the three-week trial. And it caps off what has been an eventful month for Exxon.
Last week, the top prosecutor for Massachusetts, Maura Healey (D), filed a lawsuit alleging Exxon misled consumers about the company’s role in accelerating global warming.
That suit comes on top of a number of other court cases from states, counties and municipalities from Rhode Island to Hawaii aimed at trying to hold Exxon and other oil companies liable for damage that climate change is causing on seaside cities and drought-prone farms.
And in Washington, Democrats on the House Oversight subcommittee on civil rights held a hearing to highlight Exxon’s past efforts to emphasize doubts about climate science, even as the company’s own researchers were studying it.
“They spread doubt about the dangers of climate change when its researchers were confirming how serious a threat it is,” Martin Hoffert, a consultant for Exxon Research and Engineering in the 1980s, told the panel.
— “You never know when a section will fall off”: In the latest installment of The Post’s “2°C” project, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports from Îles de la Madeleine in Quebec — a Canadian archipelago where residents are grappling with the consequences of the changing land and water around them. These Magdalen Islands have warmed 2.3 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, according to a Post examination of the fastest-warming places on Earth. That’s twice the global average. “The sea ice that used to encase the islands most winters, shielding them from the brunt of fierce storms and pounding waves, is shrinking at a rate of about 555 square miles annually, data shows. That’s a swath of ice larger than Los Angeles,” Dennis writes.
- The battle against erosion and flooding: “In the Magdalen Islands, the consequences are unmistakable: Some parts of the shoreline have lost as much as 14 feet per year to the sea over the past decade. Key roads face perpetual risk of washing out. The hospital and the city hall sit alarmingly close to deteriorating cliffs. Rising waters threaten to contaminate aquifers used for drinking water. And each year, the sea inches closer to more homes and businesses.”
- “It used to be all ice”: According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the amount of sea ice covering the Gulf of St. Lawrence is decreasing at a rate of about 12 percent a decade. As 72-year-old Geraldine Burke told Dennis: “It used to be all ice, as far as the eye could see … You’d look out, and all you could see was white. Now you look out, and it’s just the ocean.”
- Read the full story with photos from The Post’s Bonnie Jo Mount and graphics from John Muyskens here.
— California is still on fire: In Southern California, numerous fires broke out in part because of hurricane-force winds and single-digit humidity levels.
In Simi Valley, the Easy Fire threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for several hours, but because of the severe weather, firefighters were ready with teams in place and were able to keep the flames at bay. That blaze prompted the evacuation of 26,000 people.
And on the western edge of Los Angeles, fire crews were also still trying to contain the Getty Fire, which has burned through 745 acres, forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 homes and destroyed at least a dozen structures, The Post’s Scott Wilson, Katie Mettler, Andrew Freedman and Michael Brice-Saddler report. In Northern California, the Kincade Fire has ravaged 76,825 acres in Sonoma County and destroyed 206 buildings, including 94 homes.
- This has become familiar: “Nearly 20 million state residents are living within high-risk fire areas, which have grown in size as the state’s climate turns to one of extremes."
- A slow return to normal: Pacific Gas & Electric began restoring power to the region affected by the Kincade Fire, and officials began to allow some of the 190,000 evacuated residents to return home as containment of the blaze reached 30 percent on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reports.
- Newsom praises administration's fire response: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) offered a rare bit of praise, calling the Trump administration "extraordinary" in response to the fire crisis, Politico reports. The governor said he hadn't yet heard from Trump himself about the fires after reaching out, but said: "His team is performing above and beyond expectation...Every single request we’ve had to the Administration has been met.’’
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, activists call on lawmakers to act: Dozens of activists from the Sunrise Movement occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office to urge her to support the Green New Deal and to take action in the wake of the fires burning through her state. The group also visited Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) office. “California has been on fire three Octobers in a row. Families are fleeing for their lives, and Democratic leadership is failing to treat this like the emergency that it is,” said 25-year-old demonstrator Claire Tacherra-Morrison in a statement.
Fires like #GettyFires #KincaidFire will only get worse and more frequent as the climate crisis continues, and this is a future we will not accept. @SpeakerPelosi will you stand with us and fight for a #GreenNewDeal? What side are you on? pic.twitter.com/hOewEZrguh— Sunrise Movement 🌅 (@sunrisemvmt) October 30, 2019
And from the White House: Trump tweeted to thank automakers that intervened in a lawsuit to side with his administration in a fight over fuel standards. While other car companies struck a deal with California regulators to meet stricter emissions guidelines, the move from General Motors, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler “underscores carmarkers’ desire to achieve some sort of regulatory certainty, at a time when the Trump administration and the nation’s most populous state remain at a standoff,” The Post’s Dennis and Juliet Eilperin reported this week.
Thank you @GM, @FiatChrysler_NA, @Toyota, and @GloblAutomkrs for standing with us for Better, Cheaper, Safer Cars for Americans. California has treated the Auto Industry very poorly for many years, harming Workers and Consumers. We are fixing this problem! https://t.co/cf6I1e0yjQ— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2019
What Trump hasn't tweeted: The president hadn’t yet tweeted about the fires devastating the northern and southern parts of California, which Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) noted in a tweet.
As the California fires rage, even the biggest climate deniers have to see that global climate change is real. We need meaningful policies to reduce emissions, including the transportation sector. This announcement sets us back with more uncertainty and unnecessary court battles. https://t.co/4hQVkXQ9tG— Rep. Debbie Dingell (@RepDebDingell) October 30, 2019
— “The climate movement does not need any more awards”: Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg said in an Instagram post that she will decline the prestigious Nordic Council’s 2019 Environmental Award. “What we need is for our politicians and the people in power [to] start to listen to the current, best available science,” she writes. She acknowledged Nordic countries “have a great reputation around the world when it comes to climate and environmental issues,” but said it’s a “whole other story” when it comes to their ecological footprint, The Post’s Lateshia Beachum writes.
— Chile cancels international conference: Chilean president Sebastián Piñera announced that a pair of major global summits would be canceled amid growing protests, including some violent demonstratins, in the capital. The major climate change summit, the Conference of Parties, as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum were both scheduled for next month but have both been pulled by Chile.
- Change of plans: “Trump had not planned to attend the environmental summit in Chile, though a U.S. delegation was expected,” The Post’s David Nakamura and Brady Dennis report. “ … Leaders from around the world had planned to gather in Chile for the COP to push to ramp up efforts to sharply cut carbon emissions in coming years and to meet the goals of the landmark Paris climate accord, which was signed in 2015.”
- Where will the climate conference be hosted now? It's unclear. “We are currently exploring alternative hosting options,” said Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
— Dozens of members of Congress call for updating clean-energy incentives: A coalition of 166 lawmakers wrote a letter to Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) calling on them to pass clean-energy incentives. They are putting pressure on House leaders to update and extend programs that boost wind and solar power, energy storage, electric vehicles and energy efficiency in this year's tax extenders package. “Tax incentives have been an important and powerful policy tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing use of clean energy technology,” the letter reads.
— House passes measures to protect Grand and Chaco canyons: The House voted 245 to 174 to pass a bill that would block the use of federal land for oil and gas development within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. The chamber also voted 236 to 185 to pass legislation to permanently protect 1 million acres of public land north and south of the Grand Canyon from uranium mining.
- The reaction: In a statement about the votes, the League of Conservation Voters’ Laura Forero called the votes a “victory for the indigenous communities who have fought tirelessly for hundreds of years to protect their ancestral lands from further desecration and for all of those impacted by deadly extractive pollution." But the White House is already threatening to veto the Grand Canyon legislation because it would "prohibit environmentally responsible development."
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on pending legislation.
— These are some of the pets lost in the California fires: A 33-year-old named Tai Bruce created a grass-roots Facebook effort to collect posts about animals displaced during the fires to try to reunite them with their owners, “a tireless undertaking that will continue long after the fire subsides,” The Post’s Michael Brice-Saddler writes. Bruce, who now lives in Oregon, started the initiative during the 2015 Valley Fire.