Court orders Exxon to hand over documents related to decades of climate misinformation

There’s a better way to get information from the oil and gas giant than a Senate deposition of the former CEO.

While its former CEO eyes a spot in the Cabinet, Exxon is under investigation for covering up climate change data and risks. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
While its former CEO eyes a spot in the Cabinet, Exxon is under investigation for covering up climate change data and risks. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

Former Exxon CEO-turned-Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson testified for over seven hours on Wednesday about his credentials to lead U.S. foreign policy.

Also on Wednesday, the Suffolk Superior Court in Massachusetts ordered Exxon — where Tillerson worked for more than four decades — to turn over documents related to its alleged campaign to misinform the public about climate change.

“[State law] authorizes the Attorney General to obtain and examine documents ‘whenever [she] believes a person has engaged in or is engaging in any method, act or practice declared to be unlawful,’” the court noted. “Among the things declared to be unlawful… are unfair and deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”

The so-called Exxon Knew investigations — led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, several other state attorneys general, and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission — all look at what Exxon knew about climate change, when scientists at the company knew it, and whether the company broke the law by actively disseminating information to sow doubt about climate change. It is illegal for a publicly owned company to withhold information from stakeholders that could affect its financial outlook.

In 2015, Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times independently reported that Exxon scientists were aware as far back as the 1970s that burning fossil fuels drives climate change. Exxon subsequently has given millions of dollars to organizations that promote climate denial.

Massachusetts state law urges the relevant statute to be interpreted broadly, with the greatest weight on the protection of the public. The attorney general need not be confident of the outcome or even have probable cause in order to demand the documents.

“Rex Tillerson may be trying to make his getaway, but it’s good to see that the courts may yet hold Exxon responsible for the damage it’s done to this planet and to our democracy,” 350.org founder Bill McKibben said in an emailed statement.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Tillerson explicitly declined to answer any questions about the investigation.

“Are these conclusions about ExxonMobil’s history of promoting and funding climate science denial, despite its internal awareness of the reality of climate change during your tenure with the company true or false?” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked.

“Senator, since I am no longer with ExxonMobil, I am in no position to speak on their behalf,” Tillerson said. When pressed about what he knew about Exxon’s deception, which allegedly occurred during Tillerson’s 42-year tenure at the company, the former CEO again declined to respond.

Asked whether he couldn’t or just didn’t want to answer, Tillerson replied, “A little of both.”

Tillerson also denied any knowledge of Exxon’s efforts to lobby the government against Russian sanctions.

“It was astonishing to watch Tillerson dodge and weave, almost as if he hadn’t spent his entire career at ExxonMobil,” McKibben added. “Apparently, alongside the climate damage it causes, longterm exposure to Big Oil impairs your memory.”