E&E News' Hulac discusses impact of Tillerson's climate views on confirmation

How will Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's views on climate change affect his confirmation proceedings and shape the State Department's agenda on climate? On today's The Cutting Edge, E&E News reporter Benjamin Hulac unpacks Tillerson's record on climate change and talks about how it could affect his confirmation prospects.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to The Cutting Edge. How will Rex Tillerson's views on climate change impact his confirmation proceedings and shape the future of the State Department, specifically on climate? E&E News reporter Ben Hulac joins me today. Ben, thanks for joining me.

Benjamin Hulac: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, Tillerson has a deep record of commenting on and also questioning aspects of climate change. As the head of the U.S.'s largest oil company, how did he walk the line of protecting his industry's interests but also engaging in the conversation on climate change?

Benjamin Hulac: I attended the Exxon shareholder's meeting — annual meeting in Dallas this year, back in May. And he framed it — it was an interesting meeting in that it was the largest number of shareholder resolutions the company I think had ever received about climate change. They got 12 requests from stockholders specifically singling out the issue of climate change and how Exxon is either preparing for or preparing to slowly — to adapt for the impacts of climate change.

And he answered the questions largely by saying, "We view this" — meaning "Exxon and I" — "view this issue of climate change as an engineering problem." At one point he said — I wasn't in the room, but there was an audio feed and he said, "Bill Gates and I are basically on the same page on this topic," meaning: It'll come down to research and development to address climate change, to protect civilization, essentially. "And we sort of think that a lot of these alarmist views are overblown. We've been studying this for decades with the cutting-edge scientists of climate change and climate science, and we're really managing this threat well."

So he views it through that sort of nuts-and-bolts lens: that we can put our brain power to work, put our effort into addressing this issue, and sort of sidesteps the more immediate concerns of islands in the South Pacific disappearing, more immediate pressing concerns like that, or hurricane risks and crop failures.

Monica Trauzzi: And as we've spoken about before, Exxon Mobil is currently being investigated by the AGs in New York and Massachusetts. How could that investigation impact his confirmation hearings? There're lots of questions about climate change and Exxon.

Benjamin Hulac: I mean, it is very clear, when you read the court documents and a lot of the great reporting that's gone on — I would tip my cap to the folks at InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times for getting the ball rolling on this. But there's been a lot of good reporting after that. We see that Exxon did know about climate change, or was at least addressing it, studying it, really scrutinizing the subject in detail, back in the late 1970s. And then there was this reversal. And this is what the climate activist groups sort of pounce on: that after that knowledge that Exxon had, this institutional understanding of what climate change could do to the company, there's this pivot.

And now they have sort of backed away from funding groups that challenge climate science, but back in May Tillerson was asked about the company's association with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is sharply opposed to climate regulations. And he said, "We're going to maintain that relationship. We believe it's beneficial to us."

But, to your point about the AGs and the confirmation battle, I think it's potentially a lot of fuel for the fire for more environmentally concerned senators. Senator Markey of Massachusetts made a very strong statement basically saying, "Mr. Tillerson is going to have a rough battle, at least from me, on the subject of climate change." Because there is — Exxon, for better or for worse, is largely vilified like its peers are not, which I've always found striking. You know, Chevron operates in the same business. They're a rival. They're certainly smaller, but they're still a rival, and yet the animosity toward Exxon on climate change is so much stronger.

Monica Trauzzi: What do we know about Exxon's views on the carbon tax?

Benjamin Hulac: We sort of get into a gray area here. I wrote a story today about this for Climatewire. There was a tonal shift, a shift in culture, when Mr. Tillerson took over as CEO in 2006 from Lee Raymond, who — and I've talked to shareholders who attended meetings back in the '90s. They would say Raymond would often shout at you for broaching the subject of climate change and its risks. So, on the carbon tax though, they largely don't get into specifics.

An Exxon spokesman emailed me back yesterday and explained their position on a carbon tax. And it's sort of a vague estimate of what they think could happen. They've said, "We would like a carbon tax, a revenue-neutral carbon tax," and they have largely viewed cap and trade as sort of a cumbersome, unwieldy way to address the problem. Again, getting back to that sort of drilling-down hard-core engineering background of Exxon Mobil. But the details of the conversation — and I've heard this from folks who are critical of the company and folks who defend it: The details of the conversation about a carbon tax are scant.

So I think that's going to be — in the confirmation hearings we'll probably hear more about Russia, I would bet, particularly from Republican senators. But on the issue of carbon and taxing it, addressing it, we just don't know too much.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Fascinating insight. This will be an interesting one to watch.

Benjamin Hulac: It will.

Monica Trauzzi: Thank you for joining me.

Benjamin Hulac: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: The Cutting Edge returns in the new year. We will see you then.

[End of Audio]



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