Rex Tillerson will be in court answering questions about his climate change legacy on 19 January, if 21 young activists have their way.
The Exxon Mobil boss, who is retiring to take up a nomination for US secretary of state, has been called to give evidence the day before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Attorneys representing the teen plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit want to probe Tillerson on what he knew when about the dangers of burning fossil fuels to the climate.
“Rex Tillerson is one of the most knowledgeable executives in the fossil fuel world on the role of his industry alongside our federal government in causing climate change and endangering my youth plaintiffs and all future generations,” said Julia Olson, lawyer and executive director of Our Children’s Trust. “We intend to use his deposition to uncover his and others’ culpability, on behalf of these defendants.”
David Buente, a lawyer representing oil interests in the case, declined to comment when asked by Bloomberg. His team at law firm Sidley is expected to try and block the deposition.
Parallel investigations by Inside Climate News and Columbia Journalism School/Los Angeles Times uncovered internal documents showing the oil major’s own researchers confirmed the scientific consensus as early as the 1970s.
Yet for decades, Exxon-funded lobbyists that cast doubt on the science and muddied the case for acting to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Alex Loznak, 19-year-old plaintiff and student at Columbia University, said in a statement: “I was shocked when students at Columbia Journalism School uncovered ExxonMobil’s deep knowledge of climate change as early as the 1970s. What’s even more disturbing is that the Federal Government firmly knew about climate change in the 1950s.
“I look forward to working on our research team in the months ahead to establish the depth and breadth of the government and industry’s knowledge of climate danger before trial.”
— Climate Home (@ClimateHome) December 29, 2016
A trial is scheduled for the second half of 2017, after the youths’ representatives convinced judges in Eugene, Oregon they had a constitutional right to a safe climate. The next stage is to prove that right has been violated.
As a remedy, Our Children’s Trust is calling for a science-based government plan to bring carbon dioxide levels in the air below 350 parts per million by 2100. That number stayed above 400ppm year-round for the first time in 2016 and is set to rise in 2017.
Three trade associations joined the federal defence last January to try and get the case dismissed: the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Exxon was always one of the highest profile members, given its status as the world’s biggest private oil major. It is fighting a separate fraud case against allegations it misled the public – and shareholders – about climate change risk.
Tillerson’s nomination as Trump’s foreign affairs chief only intensified scrutiny on his role in shaping the climate discourse, which remains a divisive subject in the US.
In recent years, Tillerson has acknowledged the scientific consensus that human activities are driving global warming, saying the problem warranted “thoughtful action”.
Exxon nonetheless expects rampant energy demand growth to blow the carbon budget for the 2C warming limit agreed by 195 countries in Paris last year. It has dismissed the fraud investigation as “politically motivated”.