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Longtime ExxonMobil CEO and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified in a case pitting the company against the state of New York. ExxonMobil faces civil charges of defrauding investors by funding climate denial, even as its own scientists studied the climate impacts of fossil fuel extraction.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.
Rex Tillerson has worn different hats in recent years. A long time and now retired Exxon Mobil CEO, a Secretary of State under President Donald Trump, and now a witness called to court in a case pitting Exxon against the State of New York for the company's role in financing climate change denial campaigns. On October 30th, Tillerson testified before the Manhattan Supreme Court. He was examined by the company's own legal counsel, Ted Wells, and was cross-examined by an attorney for the New York Attorney General's Office.
In his testimony, Tillerson denied that the company misled investors on the causes and impacts of climate change as the New York Attorney General has alleged. New York State's Attorney General also alleges the company covered up the potential costs investors would incur due to regulations which might be implemented to halt global heating. In his testimony, Tillerson claimed that ExxonMobil "took the issue quite "seriously." He also said, "Climate change will be with us forever." But at the same time, he admitted that he didn't ever recall greenhouse gas costs being a determining factor in any decision made at ExxonMobil. The testimony came as Massachusetts brought a similar lawsuit against the company and as news broke that the company hid the climate impacts of extracting tar sands oil in Alberta, one of the largest and dirtiest deposits of crude oil on the planet.
Here to talk about it and the broader context are two guests. Alex Kaufman is an award-winning senior reporter to Huff Post covering climate change, energy, and environmental policy. He has reported from Brazil, Greenland, China, and Vietnam. Todd Paglia is the Executive Director of the group Stand.earth, which has worked on the broader campaign documenting what Exxon knew about climate change and he formerly worked as a consumer advocacy attorney for Ralph Nader. Thank you both for coming onto The Real News today, gentlemen.
TODD PAGLIA: Thank you.
ALEX KAUFMAN: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So Alex, let's start with you. You've attended the trial. You're based in New York City. What has it been like inside the courtroom and what are your big takeaways from the Tillerson testimony?
ALEX KAUFMAN: Well, so, just to be clear, I was not in the courtroom, but I've been closely following this as it has developed. I mean, the big takeaway here is that Rex Tillerson pretty much denied knowledge of anything when there were intense questioning, when there were intense questions coming from the prosecutors of what he actually knew and how he regarded the potential for any kind of greenhouse gas policies to come down the pike and affect the business.
He downplayed the fact that these were things that he was even considering, as you mentioned in the opening, and later when he was pressed on more specific topics, he said that he didn't remember or that he would not have had such granular knowledge Secretary of State under Trump and he was first pressed about this by Democrats in the Senate on what he understood about climate change and it's was pretty much a very similar performance.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And Todd, as I mentioned at the outset, you're an attorney, you've practiced for years, you've come on the Real News to discuss this case in particular. In your assessment, how does Tillerson's testimony stand up to the overall evidentiary record that we've seen thus far?
TODD PAGLIA: I think it's looking pretty weak. Like Alex said, he actually had quite a bit of detailed recall of a variety of things and, as is a pattern with Rex and other government and corporate folks, their recollection seems to fade when it comes to the matter at hand. But the bottom line is that under Rex Tillerson's watch Exxon maintained two sets of books. One for internal assessments of investments and one that they broadcast to investors to have them at least look like they're taking climate change seriously, not only the issue, but also the risk of future climate regulation. And I think the company in wrecks are in big trouble here.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Exxon and other oil industry participants have repeatedly played down the lawsuit and in fact there's been quite a backlash from the industry even to the point that some who have campaigned to hold Exxon accountable and other oil companies accountable face racketeering charges for their advocacy efforts. In his opening statement, Exxon attorney Ted Wells, who Real News climate team reporter and producer Steve Horn has shown to have ties to big tobacco, who's been involved in the NFL cover up of the concussions issue, said that "climate change is real and must be dealt with, but the Attorney General's argument is unconnected from the truth. The allegation is false, twisted, and not connected to reality."
Alex, could you talk to us about the industry's efforts to intimidate advocates in the ExxonKnew campaign from having these companies held to account for what they're alleged to have done?
ALEX KAUFMAN: Sure. The ExxonKnew campaign has been one that the company has fought tooth and nail against from the very beginning. Just even today, even as Twitter announced yesterday that it was going to discontinue political advertising, I look in my Twitter feed and it was filled with rebuttals written by supposed news websites like Energy in Depth that are in fact funded by the oil and gas industry directly. So this is something that they take very seriously. This is a liability that they are deeply concerned with. With regard to this case specifically in New York, I think it's noting that the Attorney General, Leticia James, is specifically going after the company for defrauding investors using the very powerful Shareholder Protection Law, the Martin Act, in New York.