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Do Exxon’s Climate Denial & “Trail of Carnage” on Human Rights Make Tillerson Unfit for State Dept?

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At the Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state nominee and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, he refused to answer questions about the oil giant’s long history of denying the science of climate change, telling Senators that scientific literature on climate change is “inconclusive.”During the hearing, human rights concerns were also raised repeatedly. Tillerson refused to label Saudi Arabia a human rights violator, and avoided condemning Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte over thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out under Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs.” We are joined from San Francisco by oil and energy journalist Antonia Juhasz.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the Senate committee hearing for secretary of state nominee and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. On Wednesday, Tillerson refused to answer questions about the oil giant’s long history of denying the science of climate change, telling senators that scientific literature on climate change is, quote, “inconclusive.” Exposés by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times have revealed Exxon knew that fossil fuels cause global warming as early as the 1970s, but hid that information from the public and instead poured millions of dollars into PR efforts aimed at sowing doubt over the science of climate change. Tillerson was asked about these reports by Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine.

SEN. TIM KAINE: 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?

REX TILLERSON: Senator, since I’m no longer with ExxonMobil, I’m in no position to speak on their behalf. The question would have to be put to them.

SEN. TIM KAINE: And let me ask you: Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?

REX TILLERSON: A little of both.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Um, I have a hard time believing you lack the knowledge to answer my question.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This comes as a Massachusetts court has ruled that ExxonMobil must comply with state Attorney General Maura Healey’s “Exxon Knew” investigation, halting the company’s efforts to quash the inquiry into what the company knew about the science of global warming. As he testified Wednesday, Tillerson was repeatedly interrupted by protesters from Greenpeace opposed to naming an oil company executive as secretary of state. Outside, about 200 people rallied holding signs reading “#EXXONKNEW.”

AMY GOODMAN: During the hearing, human rights concerns were also raised repeatedly. Tillerson refused to label Saudi Arabia a human rights violator, avoided condemning Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte over thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out under his so-called war on drugs. Tillerson said he would advise President Trump to veto any attempt to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and said China should be barred from artificial islands it’s built in the South China Sea. Tillerson broke with Trump over the President-elect’s comment that it would not be a bad thing for South Korea and Japan to build their own nuclear weapons. This is Rex Tillerson under questioning from Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey.

REX TILLERSON: Senator, I don’t think anyone advocates for more nuclear weapons on the planet.

SEN. ED MARKEY: Donald Trump said it would not be a bad thing. Do you agree with that or disagree that?

REX TILLERSON: I do not agree.

AMY GOODMAN: Rex Tillerson also denied knowledge of ExxonMobil’s efforts to prevent U.S. sanctions against Russia, testifying he never personally lobbied against sanctions. That prompted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, Republican Bob Corker, to respond, quote, “I think you called me at the time.”

For more, we’re joined from San Francisco by oil and energy journalist Antonia Juhasz. Her cover story for In These Times is headlined “Rex Tillerson Could Be America’s Most Dangerous Secretary of State.” In it, she argues Tillerson spent his entire adult life working for a company that’s left a trail of carnage, from human rights abuses to the destruction of the environment, in its ruthless pursuit of oil, according to Antonia Juhasz.

Antonia, welcome back to Democracy Now! You were tweeting the whole day of the hearing. You watched it. Talk about what was most significant.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Well, thanks for having me, Amy and Nermeen.

I would say the biggest takeaway from this hearing is that there is no separating Rex Tillerson from ExxonMobil. And I think he made that very clear in the hearings. He took the position again and again and again, when being asked about questions around human rights, equality, ethics—he took the position of the corporation over and over and over again. In one very telling exchange, he was asked—you know, ExxonMobil has done business over the years with basically every of the most brutal dictators in the world. And he was asked, you know, “Is there a country you wouldn’t work in, you wouldn’t work with, because of issues around human rights and other abuses?” And he said, “Well, it depends on the contract structure and the rule of law.” And then he was pressed again: “But what about human rights? What about other issues?” And basically he said, you know, “No.”

And there’s a very telling quote from 2008 by a vice president of ExxonMobil, so this is when Rex Tillerson was CEO. And his vice president said, “In the pursuit of alternative energy, it should not in any way harm or distract from the pursuit of oil and natural gas.” And I think you could replace “alternative energy” with just about any phrase to understand Rex Tillerson and to understand ExxonMobil. Oil and natural gas are paramount, and I think that is how we could understand what his position would be as secretary of state.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it was very interesting to see Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, going after Tillerson, particularly around Russia and sanctions. Did Tillerson lie when he said he didn’t, and he didn’t know of his company—although Bob Menendez of New Jersey held up the lobbying disclosure forms—didn’t lobby against sanctions?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, he certainly misspoke. So, I think what he was thinking—and again, this is the CEO speaking. So, we had the lobbying disclosure forms—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip, so that it’s not me characterizing him.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: ExxonMobil and Rex Tillerson have met continually—

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia—Antonia—

ANTONIA JUHASZ: —on the issue of sanctions. And this question wasn’t just about Russia. It was also about Iran. It was also about other countries, which ExxonMobil would like to see the sanctions removed from. And so, the lobbying disclosure forms say, “We lobbied about a particular bill.” It never says which direction did you argue. So, as is always the case with ExxonMobil, it will fight. It will fight. It will litigate. It will litigate. It will litigate. It will litigate. It will run you into the ground. And I think that’s what he thought he could get away with. But, of course, there also is a much broader record of what the objectives of ExxonMobil have been in these areas. So, in Iran, for example, where ExxonMobil has most certainly lobbied to have sanctions lifted, ExxonMobil, and Mobil, before it, for decades has led a group called—led a group called USA Engage, which entire purpose was to get sanctions lifted, first on Iran. Mobil ran advertisements in U.S. newspapers encouraging the lifting of Iranian sanctions. And that’s a position that ExxonMobil has carried on for decades—

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Rex Tillerson—

ANTONIA JUHASZ: —including under Tillerson—

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia, Rex Tillerson—

ANTONIA JUHASZ: —working in countries in which there were—there are sanctions. So, ExxonMobil, under Tillerson, worked with Iran, Sudan, Syria, while the U.S. had sanctions against those countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Rex Tillerson denied he even knew what USA Engage was. But during the hearing, he denied—just to go back to him in his own words—or, to his knowledge, he himself or ExxonMobil lobbied against imposing sanctions on Russia.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Right. I think, again, that’s—

REX TILLERSON: I never lobbied against the sanctions. To my knowledge, ExxonMobil never lobbied against the sanctions. ExxonMobil participated in understanding how the sanctions were going to be constructed, and was asked and provided information regarding how those might impact American business interests.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could go on, Antonia, from there, his denial that he or ExxonMobil lobbied around—against sanctions with Russia? And then, you’re talking about these other countries.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, so, in Russia—again, I think what he’s trying to get away with is, “Prove what I said in the room.” Yes, we have it documented that Rex Tillerson met with President Obama on Russia sanctions. That’s documented. And I think what he was trying to get away with, which he couldn’t, was, “Well, so, prove what I actually said in the room,” which, of course, we can’t. We don’t have documentation of that. And that’s just him, you know, using ExxonMobil, the way he always has, which is to fight, you know, to the bitter, bitter end. They’re always referred to as a scorched earth company when you talk to communities and lawyers who have to go against them. But what we know is that Rex Tillerson has also said publicly that he doesn’t agree with sanctions.

We also know that in Russia, because of Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil now has the largest holdings it has anywhere in the world, and these are five times larger than its second-largest holdings, which are in the United States. And that’s because Rex Tillerson made deals with Russia for 10 joint ventures with Rosneft, the state-owned oil company, to gain these huge holdings in Russia, a large chunk of which are in the Russian Arctic. And that deal—the deal was finalized in 2003. But then, in 2014, President Obama put in place sanctions against Russia, and that means that a large chunk of that oil is now no longer available to ExxonMobil.

And Rex Tillerson, yes, as of 11 days ago, retired as the CEO of ExxonMobil. But this is a man who spent literally his entire adult life at ExxonMobil. He was recruited straight out of UT Austin. He is working at a company that is referred to by its employees as “Mother Exxon.” I believe he’s deeply, deeply tied to this company. And I believe that he is not happy about the fact that he left ExxonMobil in worse shape than when he came on. And one of the biggest deals that he accomplished as CEO was this huge Russia deal. But Exxon can’t enjoy its Russia deal while the sanctions are in place.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, human rights issues were repeatedly raised during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing Wednesday. In this clip, Senator Marco Rubio questions Tillerson on the so-called war on drugs in the Philippines.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last June, the Los Angeles Times reports that roughly over 6,200 people have been killed in the Philippines by police and vigilantes in alleged drug raids. In your view, is this the right way to conduct an anti-drug campaign?

REX TILLERSON: Senator, the U.S.—America and the people of the Philippines have a long-standing friendship, and I think it’s important that we keep that in perspective in engaging with the government of the Philippines, that that long-standing friendship, and they have been an ally, and we need to ensure that they stay an ally.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: That’s correct, Mr. Tillerson, but my question is about the 6,200 people that have been killed in these alleged drug raids. Do you believe that that is an appropriate way to conduct that operation? Or do you believe that it is something that’s conducive to human rights violations that we should be concerned about and condemning?

REX TILLERSON: Senator, if confirmed, again, it’s an area that I’d want to understand in greater detail in terms of the facts on the ground. I’m not disputing anything you’re saying, because I know you have access to information that I do not have.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: This one in the Los Angeles Times.

REX TILLERSON: Well, again, I’m not going to rely on solely what I read in the newspapers. I will go to the facts on the ground. I’m sure there’s—I’m sure there’s good credible information available through our various government agencies.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s Tillerson talking about the so-called war on drugs, in which thousands have been killed. Now, in your piece, Antonia, you talk about Exxon’s role in Aceh, Indonesia. Could you explain what Exxon is being accused of there?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah. Human rights was a big theme throughout the hearing, brought up by many, many senators. And, you know, as someone who’s spent a—you know, I’ve written three books about the oil industry. I’ve spent a lot of time studying ExxonMobil. To hear Rex Tillerson continually talk—and in that clip he didn’t, but he did mention, you know, the way that he—the ways that he would uphold human rights—was deeply disturbing, for one reason being this case that I highlight in my report, which is one of the more renowned because of the level of abuse, international human rights cases involving an oil company. And this is a case in which the complaint is actually now just getting ready to go before the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. They’re awaiting a trial date any day now. And this involves severe human rights abuses in Indonesia by security forces employed by ExxonMobil. And the complaint specifically names Rex Tillerson.

And what the charges are, they involve charges from 2000 to 2004 that ExxonMobil essentially, in the words of the complaint, privatized the Indonesian military to act as its own security force for its natural gas operations there. Aceh was in the midst of an independence movement. It was a violent and hectic independence movement. And ExxonMobil used a renowned-for-its-human-rights-abuse-record military to be its private security force. And in one of the cases, for example, John Doe number two—and they’re all John Does, because they’re all afraid for their lives—the person alleges that he was kidnapped by ExxonMobil’s private security forces. He was held for three months. He was severely tortured. He was shown a pile of human heads and warned that this is what was going to happen to him. He was eventually released, and then his home was burned down. But this is a case that involves charges of murder, sexual assault, you know, sort of the most horrific things you can imagine. And the case alleges that the decisions were being made to use this military force at the highest levels of ExxonMobil, in the executive level, at the—you know, not just in the subsidiary in Indonesia, but in corporate headquarters in the United States, and that the decision—even when it was known by executives that the Indonesian force was using these extreme human rights abuses, the decision was made to continue using that force and actually to intensify the use of that force.

And named in the complaint is Rex Tillerson in his role then as president of ExxonMobil, as someone who had met with Indonesian authorities. So this is a case that he, you know, I would imagine, at a minimum, is certainly aware of, and very important. You know, what ExxonMobil argues is not that the human rights abuses did not occur, but rather that it is not liable for them. And ExxonMobil stayed in Indonesia. You know, the only—the only thing that ended this conflict was the tsunami at the end of—in December 2004 that essentially wiped out Aceh. The ExxonMobil facility survived the tsunami. And so, ExxonMobil never chose to stop operating because of everything that was going on around it. It stayed. It stayed. It stayed. It stayed. And that is an example of choices made all around the world, where ExxonMobil has partnered with and propped up—right now in Angola, in Equatorial Guinea—worked with, propped up dictators, governments that are incredibly abusive to their people, so that they could get their oil. And that has been and continues to be the model that ExxonMobil follows.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia, we want to thank you for being with us. Antonia Juhasz, oil and energy journalist, author of Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill as well as The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry—and What We Must Do to Stop It. We’ll link to your piece, “Rex Tillerson Could Be America’s Most Dangerous Secretary of State.”

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