Merkley grills secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson on climate change, Exxon ties to nations under sanction

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday questioned U.S. secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, a former chief executive at Exxon Mobil, about his views on climate change and the oil company’s business dealings with countries under U.S. sanctions. 

Merkley asked Tillerson, a Donald Trump appointee who took questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of his confirmation hearing, if he believes the United States should mitigate the effects of climate change. Burning of fossil fuels releases carbon, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change. 

Tillerson said scientists cannot “predict with precision” which natural disasters are directly linked to climate change, but that it “doesn’t mean that we should do nothing.” Tillerson also said scientific literature connecting climate change to natural disasters “is not conclusive.”

Merkley, a Democrat, said climate change does contribute to environmental catastrophes — including intense forest fires in Oregon and dwindling oyster populations along the state’s coast.

“Every one of us in our states are seeing effects on the ground. And as we see that, we know we’re just at the beginning,” Merkley said. “Do you see it as a national security issue?”

Tillerson: “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that others do.”

Merkley asked Tillerson if he believes climate change is contributing to regional instability in the Middle East or compromising European security.

“The facts on the ground are indisputable, in terms of what’s happening with the drought, disease, insect populations,” Tillerson said. “The science behind the clear connection is not conclusive.”

“I’m sorry to hear that viewpoint,” Merkley sad, “because it’s overwhelmingly that the scales are on one side of this argument.”

Merkley turned to the Paris Agreement on climate change and limiting greenhouse gas emissions signed last spring. He asked if Tillerson supports the accord, which was signed by more than 100 nations, including the United States.

“It’s important for us to have a seat at the table,” Tillerson said, “but I also think it’s important that others need to step up and decide whether this is important to them or not.”

Tillerson said the United States has made strides in combating climate change over the past two decades. The nation “can be quite proud” of its environmental record, he said.

For his last question, Merkley turned to news reports showing that Exxon Mobil, through a European subsidiary, did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan — countries under U.S. sanctions — while Tillerson led the company.

Merkley submitted into the record 10 news articles outlining the business relationships and also posted on Twitter that by “evading” sanctions, Exxon Mobil had “put its interests and that of a terrorist regime before America’s.” 

“Have you participated in any Exxon meetings in which you strategized, or individuals strategized, to find a legal path to do business with nations on which we had sanctions?” Merkley asked.

Tillerson, often brief during Wednesday’s hearing, responded matter-of-factly: “No.”