Tillerson Escapes Deposition in Teens’ Climate Change Case

  • U.S. Secretary of State nominee may still face subpoena
  • Ex-Exxon chief supported Paris deal ahead of confirmation

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President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson won’t have to answer questions under oath from attorneys representing teenagers who claim the U.S. government failed to protect the environment from global warming.

The youths’ request to have Tillerson deposed was rejected Friday by a federal judge in Eugene, Oregon. The judge left open the possibility that lawyers could subpoena Exxon Mobil Corp.’s former chief executive officer after he’s confirmed as the nation’s top diplomat.

Attorneys continue to look for ways to get Tillerson to testify on the relationship between the government and the fossil-fuel industry during the 16 years presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in office, said plaintiffs’ attorney Phillip Gregory. Since he’s no longer on the board of the American Petroleum Institute and has yet to be confirmed, Tillerson had no legal representation at Friday’s hearing, which may have factored into the judge’s decision, Gregory said.

Senate confirmation of Tillerson’s nomination is widely expected no later than Wednesday. C. Marie Eckert, an attorney who fought the effort to depose Tillerson, wasn’t immediately available to comment on Friday’s hearing.

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Twenty-one youths from across the country claim that by perpetuating the use of fossil fuels, the government has trampled their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. They won a shot at pursuing their claims in November when U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene rejected the government’s request to throw out their lawsuit.

The American Petroleum Institute intervened in the case last year on the government’s behalf and lawyers for the youths sought Tillerson’s testimony as chairman-elect of the organization. The deposition was set for Jan. 19, a day before Trump was sworn in as the 45th president. But in a letter to attorneys for the teens, Eckert said that since Tillerson is no longer affiliated with the institute, he wouldn’t appear for the deposition.

Lawyers for the teens said in December they wanted to ask Tillerson, who headed Exxon for 11 years, how the oil giant and the industry may have contributed to global environmental damage. One of Exxon’s senior scientists noted in 1977 -- 11 years before a NASA scientist sounded the alarm about global warming during congressional testimony -- that “the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”

‘Open Mind’

Before taking office, Trump dubbed global warming a Chinese invention to hurt U.S. manufacturing and subsequently promised to keep an “open mind” on the global climate-change accord forged last year in Paris. Tillerson and Exxon publicly pivoted on their position on climate change as early as 2013, calling it a “serious risk” in an interview with Charlie Rose.

It’s clear that there’s an impact from carbon dioxide emissions, Tillerson said then. “What’s not clear is our ability to measure with a great degree of accuracy or certainty exactly how large that impact will be," he said.

Tillerson has subsequently reinforced his position, including in an October speech at the annual Oil and Money conference in London, when he said climate change warrants “thoughtful action.” He cited the Paris agreement as a tool for the world to work together to “mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”

The case is Juliana v. U.S., 15-cv-01517, U.S. District Court, District of Oregon (Eugene).

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