The 'Exxon Knew' controversy is plaguing Rex Tillerson — here's what it means

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Outside the hearing on former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson's nomination as secretary of state, 15 people dressed as T-Rex dinosaurs joined hundreds of protesters.

In addition to calling Tillerson a climate dinosaur — a reference to Exxon's history of climate change denial — the demonstrators' rhetoric centered around one phrase: #ExxonKnew.

The allegation refers to two damning investigations conducted by the LA Times and Inside Climate News in 2015, both of which found that Exxon leaders knew humans were causing climate change as early as 1977, yet intentionally misled the public about global warming while lobbying the government to block emissions regulations. The reports sparked outrage, spreading online with the hashtag #ExxonKnew.

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Rex Tillerson through his career

Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

(REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool)

Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

(Jason Reed / Reuters)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

(REUTERS/Michael Fiala)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

(Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

(Photographer: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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Inside Climate News' series, which was published after an eight-month investigation, suggests that Exxon was briefed by scientists and even conducted its own robust climate modeling programs for years, all of which suggested that fossil fuels were to blame for spiking global temperatures. (The LA Times' report confirms the same.) But despite this information, Exxon continued to push for the appointment of officials who broke with the mainstream opinion on climate change, and set up the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying partnership devoted to opposing controls on carbon pollution.

A 2007 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists also suggested that Exxon used the same tactics as the cigarette industry to promote uncertainty about the facts of climate change.

Tillerson actually does acknowledge that climate change is a problem (unlike EPA nominee Scott Pruitt and President-elect Donald Trump). However, environmental advocates believe Exxon's record speaks louder than Tillerson's words. According to an analysis by NextGen Climate published by the Huffington Post this week, Exxon gave more than $6.5 million to groups that deny fossil fuels contribute to global warming between 2008 and 2015. The company vowed nine years ago to stop funding groups that promoted misinformation about climate change.

Senator Tim Kaine questioned Tillerson about that history during the hearing today, asking him whether Exxon Mobil knew about climate change long ago, despite what the company has publicly stated.

Tillerson declined to comment, suggesting that he can't speak for the company now that he no longer works there.

"Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or do you refuse to answer my question?" Mr. Kaine asked.

"A little of both," Mr. Tillerson responded.

Both Kaine and various environmental groups took this response as confirmation of the "Exxon Knew" controversy.

May Boeve, executive director of grassroots environmental organization 350.org, immediately issued a statement highlighting Tillerson's refusal to answer Kaine's question. "Tillerson is still lying about what Exxon knew about climate change," Boeve said "Tillerson deserves a federal investigation into Exxon's lies, not a cabinet appointment."

Stephen Kretzmann, Executive Director of Oil Change International, an organization that works to expose the dangers of fossil fuels and promote a clean energy transition, echoed these sentiments.

"Unsurprisingly, Tillerson essentially pled the fifth when asked about Exxon's long history of denying climate science, explicitly refusing to answer the question, or accept any responsibility for the actions of the company of which he was CEO for the last decade," he said. "The record is clear: Exxon Knew."

Various states, including Massachusetts and California, are currently investigating whether Exxon Mobil indeed lied to the public and its shareholders, since that could mean the company engaged in fraud and violated various environmental laws. In November 2016, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed over a million of Exxon's internal documents.

Whether or not Tillerson becomes our next Secretary of State, Exxon's past will undoubtedly continue to plague him.

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