Business First Look

Judge: Exxon must hand over decades of documents in climate change probe

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson fielded questions about climate change during Senate confirmation hearings. Meanwhile, his company was ordered to release decades of documents on the topic.

A judge in Massachusetts ruled Wednesday that Exxon Mobil Corp. must release four decades' worth of documents to authorities investigating what the oil and gas company knew about climate change, and when they knew it.

The order came the same day that Exxon's former chief executive officer, Rex Tillerson, who has been nominated by US President-elect Donald Trump for secretary of State, answered questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of his confirmation process.

Mr. Tillerson acknowledged during the hearing that climate change exists, while still casting doubt on "our ability to predict" the extent to which greenhouse gases will damage Earth's atmosphere. His testimony did differ, however, from Mr. Trump's repeated and baseless dismissal of climate science as a "hoax" perpetrated by China.

The investigation in Massachusetts is one of several state-level probes being led by Democratic attorneys general following a report last year by Inside Climate News, which drew attention to what it later described as "the rock that started a landslide." They revealed that Exxon had studied climate change for four decades while publicly casting doubt and advocating against political action to address the problem, even after a company researcher warned executives in 1977 that fossil fuels could wreak havoc on the climate.

Authorities in Massachusetts, New York, California, and the Virgin Islands, among others, responded by launching investigations to determine if Exxon misled the government and the public about the true cost of their business practices, perhaps in violation of state or local laws, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last year.

Exxon had asked a Massachusetts judge to exempt it from an order from the state's attorney general, but the judge on Wednesday declined to do so, ordering the company to release mountains of documents.

Judge Heidi Brieger noted in her order that the attorney general did not need to establish "probable cause" that Exxon had violated the law in order to demand the documents. A mere "belief that a person has engaged in or is engaging in conduct declared to be unlawful" would suffice, she wrote, handing a small victory to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

"Exxon must now end its obstructive tactics and come clean about whether it misled Massachusetts consumers and investors about what it knew about climate change, its causes and effects," Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman for Ms. Healey, said in a written statement.

Now the chief executive of a business at odds with state-level Democratic leaders could join a Republican administration with which he also disagrees – a complicated relationship that leaves a lot of uncertainty, especially with regard to the US commitment to uphold the Paris climate deal.

"It will be interesting to see how his opinions working with President-elect Trump will differ from working with ExxonMobil," said John Eick, director of energy, environment, and agriculture with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in a Wednesday interview with the Monitor. "The stances of the organization don't always represent the individual."

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, the chairman for the Foreign Relations Committee, said Friday that he suspects Tillerson's views will prove less controversial to Trump's foes than they expect.

"I think Democrats are sitting down with him and realizing that this guy's a scientist and an engineer, or an engineer that believes in science, so on some of the issues that you know they care about I think the answers they're getting are much different than they thought," Senator Corker said Friday during a breakfast event hosted in Washington by the Monitor. (Tillerson holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.)

Tillerson told the committee that he became convinced "a few years ago" that climate change is real and that human activity is having an effect. Regardless of how long ago that realization came, Exxon contends that state authorities are trying to hold it accountable for failing to reach a scientific consensus before the rest of the scientific community – a claim the company called "preposterous" in a statement last year.

"It assumes that the expertise of a handful of Exxon scientists somehow exceeded the accumulated knowledge of the global scientific community at the time, and that the Exxon scientists somehow were able to reach definitive conclusions before the science had developed," the statement said. "It ignores the fact that Exxon's scientists were fully engaged in the public discussion, openly sharing their findings in peer-reviewed publications and public archives, and actively contributing to the work of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

Critics have denounced the investigations as a form of viewpoint discrimination.

"It is the intention of the liberal attorneys general to use their investigatory powers to prosecute based on one specific viewpoint and to threaten penalties for those who hold different views," Rob Henneke, general counsel for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, told Inside Climate News. "This is not allowing for an open discussion on the underlying policy issues and resolving the scientific debate on the impact of mankind on our environment."

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.