Trump Transition

How a Tillerson State Dept. could handle climate and energy issues

As Congress votes to confirm President Trump’s Cabinet picks, how will the new agency heads shape this administration’s climate and energy agenda? E&ETV recently produced a series of discussions following the confirmation hearings of U.S. EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt, Department of Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry, secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, and Interior Department secretary nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.).

E&E News reporters Hannah Hess and Jean Chemnick join E&ETV Managing Editor Monica Trauzzi for a discussion on the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s nominee for secretary of State.


Monica Trauzzi: Good morning. Thanks for joining us from the E&E News newsroom in Washington, D.C. As we discussed, some of the key questions emerging from yesterday's confirmation hearing of Rex Tillerson, secretary of State nominee before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I'm Monica Trauzzi, and joining me are E&E News reporters Jean Chemnick and Hannah Hess. Thank you, guys. So very interesting hearing yesterday. Just one day, which is pretty significant. I think most people were thinking that it was going to spill over into a second day. It was a little unclear, even, at the end of the day whether it would spill over. Why do you think they only took one day?

Jean Chemnick: Well, the Democrats were saying that they would insist on a second day if they still had unanswered questions.

Hannah Hess: Chairman Corker gave a lot of time at the end, I think, for Democratic questions, and it didn't seem like there were a lot of open-ended questions about his positions on climate or the Russian sanctions issue was really thoroughly vetted throughout that hearing.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah, and that probably speaks to the questions that the panel asked, but also the succinct answers that Tillerson was giving throughout the day. What moment in the hearing stood out to you guys the most?

Jean Chemnick: I thought it was interesting when he tried to explain his view of climate change. This was in response to a question by Udall, and he was sort of asked what his personal, you know, view on climate change was, which is, of course, different from the president-elect, who doesn't believe it's happening at all. But he gave a fairly tortured answer, you know, about referencing his past as a — in science and as an engineer, and in the end, Corker actually jumped in and said oh, you know, can you give a more succinct answer and aren't you saying that it's, you know, man-made, at least in part. And he was sort of seeming to drive home to the Democrats on the committee that he believed in climate change, which I thought was an interesting little exchange.

Monica Trauzzi: But always leaving a little bit of ambiguity, I thought.

Jean Chemnick: Yes, a ton of ambiguity.

Monica Trauzzi: What stood out to you?

Hannah Hess: Well, the Exxon Knew crowd certainly made themselves pretty prominent at the hearing. They marched there, they took some seats in the front row wearing these bright yellow Exxon Knew shirts. And then it seemed like we were going to have more protesters talking about that issue than we had questions for the first couple hours of the hearing. Then when it came to Senator Kaine, he went into some depth about, you know, what kind of climate policies did you pursue with Exxon, how much does Exxon know about this issue, and Mr. Tillerson largely deflected those, but there was kind of a moment of levity, I guess, when he said, "Are you unable to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?" And Tillerson just deadpanned, "A little bit of both." There was laughter, and it was memorable.

Monica Trauzzi: He said he was lacking knowledge and refusing to answer. Yeah, I thought that was a great moment as well. So are we clear as to what his views on climate change are and how he wants to handle things like the Paris Agreement?

Jean Chemnick: Well, I mean, his views, I guess, on climate change are that it's happening and that human emissions are at least playing a role, but some scientists who were watching the speech or environmentalists also sort of said it stopped short of the level of knowledge we now have of the science.

On Paris, he was asked multiple times throughout the hearing about that, and he kept saying that it was important to maintain a seat at the table, which could suggest that he wants to stay in Paris. It also could suggest that he wants to stay in the U.N. body that negotiated Paris, which is the UNFCCC.

Monica Trauzzi: Again, they're leaving the door open.

Hannah Hess: Right. And he also said in response to some Republican questioning that Paris Agreement looks like a treaty, which definitely leaves the door open for this path that some of the Trump transition team had talked about of submitting the Paris Agreement itself to the Senate for an up-or-down vote.

Monica Trauzzi: How do you think the Senate panel did in terms of the types of questions they were asking and how climate issues balance with some of the other issues that they were trying to ask about?

Jean Chemnick: I mean, I thought it was a fairly aggressive hearing. I mean, I don't think he was given an easy ride at all, actually. I think he was on the defensive a fair amount on a variety of issues — Russia, you know, different issues. And I thought that there was a lot of discussion of climate change on the Democratic side. There was only a very limited amount on the Republican side, really, just Barrasso with his energy and his climate finance questions. But it was a pretty prominent theme, I thought.

Hannah Hess: And in the second half of the hearing, I mean, the audience in the room itself kind of thinned out after I think we were on hour 6 or 7 at this point, but Senator Merkley from Oregon really went into some depth about the various threats associated with climate change, talking about, you know, we see drought here, we see wildfires here, how do you connect those natural disasters to climate change, really trying to pin him down on the science of it. And again, Tillerson said there wasn't enough information about emissions and that he refuted the fact that scientists were linking the two. But it was really kind of fascinating. Merkley also got in a good question about do you see climate change as a national security threat, and Tillerson, in quite a contrast to Secretary of State John Kerry, said no, he does not see it as the national security threat that some do, I think was the quote.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah, an immediate national security threat. What do we know about Tillerson's views on energy diplomacy?

Hannah Hess: He really hammered home this idea of energy poverty yesterday and talked a lot about how energy itself can be a tool of diplomacy for the United States. He said he would not, across the board, commit to recusing himself from issues dealing with oil and natural gas, although for the first year of his tenure, he's confirmed that he won't have any — he'll recuse himself from issues dealing with Exxon. He was put on the record about coal development in Africa specifically, and he said — he left the door open to that. He said, you know, despite some — the World Bank committing to not funding coal projects anymore, that he thinks that if coal makes the most sense financially for a country, then why not.

Monica Trauzzi: There was also this question of whether Exxon had lobbied on sanctions, and there was a lot of back and forth on that. That was quite interesting, that exchange.

Hannah Hess: Right, and his answers kind of evolved over the course of the hearing. In the afternoon, you had Senator Menendez waving a lobbying registration paper towards him when they were talking about whether or not Exxon had lobbied against sanctions on Russia. He was also asked about a group that Exxon is part of that has lobbied against sanctions, and it was — he got a lot of grief for not — for being kind of shaky on this issue of Russian sanctions.

Monica Trauzzi: And at one point, he even said, "Well, I don't know what that paper that you're holding up is saying. What did we — did we lobby for them or against them?"

Hannah Hess: And Menendez said, "I guarantee you were against these sanctions." Yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah, lots of interesting back and forth and dynamic moments in the hearing. It was quite dynamic. And then at the end, we heard from Corker an overall impression that Tillerson hadn't used any notes throughout the day.

Hannah Hess: And Senator Corker really jumped in to help Tillerson in a lot of — Jean, you referenced how he asked him to clarify his views on climate. He said about the Russian sanctions issue, "Well, I believe you did talk to me about that." And he gave Tillerson a platform to go into a little more depth about Russian sanctions and speak to how the 2014 round of sanctions over Crimea had really impacted some — an oil drilling project in the Arctic and gave a very long, expansive answer on that.

Monica Trauzzi: So ultimately, how is the vote shaping up on this?

Jean Chemnick: I think it's a real question whether he has enough Republican votes. There are a number of Republicans who are — I don't think Rubio was looking at supporting him after yesterday. He was almost one of the sharpest — he's pretty obviously not leaning towards that. And then there were a number of other people who are not on the committee as well who've said that they probably won't. McCain comes to mind. I think it's a tight vote. I'm not actually sure how it breaks. We were talking before we taped about whether Corker might be trying to shore up some Democratic support, or at least leaving the door open for that by emphasizing that this guy is a scientist and he has a nuanced view of climate science.

I thought it was interesting. There was some discussion of his past support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and he seemed to sort of be moving away from it. This was actually a policy that Exxon kind of doubled down on ahead of Paris in 2015. They had had kind of conditional support for it while cap and trade was going on, but they made a stronger statement for it right before Paris. But he seemed to sort of be walking away from it. He definitely cast that support in the context of, oh, I hated cap and trade so much. I was looking for something that might work because clearly cap and trade didn't in Europe and so we don't want that here. So it sounded a little like he was trying to give comfort to the Republicans on the committee who are generally very anti-climate action but, you know, that might have been an area where Democrats might think, oh, maybe he'll work with us on something. He missed that opportunity, I think, if that was, you know, something that was possible.

Monica Trauzzi: And, Hannah, your impressions on the vote?

Hannah Hess: You know, the Republicans only have a one-seat advantage on the Foreign Relations Committee itself. There are a number of Democrats. Merkley said this morning that he will not support Tillerson to be secretary of State, so I think it'll be interesting to see who else kind of peels off before we have this vote.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah, very interesting to watch. Thank you, guys.

Jean Chemnick: Thanks.

Hannah Hess: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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