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Key Questions for Rex Tillerson on Energy and Environmental Policy

Key Questions for Rex Tillerson on Energy and Environmental Policy

On January 11, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can provide a window into whose interests the State Department would serve under the leadership of Rex Tillerson.

The Trump administration's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, answers a question during a news conference after the annual Exxon Mobil shareholders meeting in Dallas, May 2008. (AP/LM Otero)
The Trump administration's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, answers a question during a news conference after the annual Exxon Mobil shareholders meeting in Dallas, May 2008. (AP/LM Otero)

At a time when international efforts to curb climate change have begun to show real promise, President-elect Donald Trump has chosen to nominate Rex Tillerson for U.S. secretary of state.

Tillerson is the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, a corporation well-known for funding climate denial groups; for the investigations by attorneys general into whether it deliberately deceived investors and the public about the risks of climate change; and for its ties with Russia, including the agreement with Russian state-owned Rosneft that facilitates oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean and Black Sea.

There are therefore concerns about whether Tillerson, as secretary of state, would pursue energy and environmental policies that promote the welfare of the United States and its allies over the welfare of the oil and gas industry.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold its nomination hearing on Tillerson on January 11. Tillerson’s responses to questions on three key themes—mitigation of carbon pollution, advancement of clean energy, and protection of the world’s oceans—would provide some insight into what shape international climate and environmental policy would take under Tillerson as lead diplomat of the United States.

Protecting citizens from carbon pollution and climate threats

The existence of climate change and its cascade of damaging effects are long-settled. Climate change has consequences—including sea level rise, droughts, wildfires, more frequent and intense storms, and extreme heat—that endanger the American people and nations around the globe. It harms health and agriculture. It threatens regional stability through food and water insecurity. It undermines the resilience of the global economy.

Yet Tillerson has a record of minimizing the threats of carbon pollution. Although he has acknowledged that “the risks of climate change are real and require serious action,” he also has claimed that climate change is “an engineering problem” to which society will adapt.

Tillerson therefore will need to explain his assessment of how climate change threatens the welfare, health, and national security of the United States and its allies. He also will need to explain whether he believes the U.S. government has a role in reducing these threats and, if so, whether this includes supporting a shift to nonpolluting energy in addition to supporting adaptation.

Specifically, Tillerson should describe his position on the Paris Agreement—a historic pact that more than 120 countries, including the United States, have officially joined to date. With Tillerson as CEO, Exxon Mobil has voiced its support for the agreement. At the hearing, Tillerson should clarify whether he, as secretary of state, would promote full U.S. participation in the agreement and work to fulfill U.S. obligations.

It is not merely a matter of remaining in or backing out of the pact. In the run-up to the Paris summit, the United States set a global example by submitting ambitious national climate goals and fostered the political will necessary to negotiate a global agreement through determined diplomacy. Tillerson should explain whether he would seek to maintain U.S. global climate leadership—or whether the country would regress into a reluctant or obstructionist party to the agreement on his watch, even if it does not fully withdraw.

The Paris Agreement is not the only pact at issue. The United States has bilateral commitments and understandings with a number of countries—including China, India, Canada, and Mexico—to advance clean energy and mitigate greenhouse gas pollution. It is also a party to multilateral efforts and forums such as the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership, which includes a goal to reach 50 percent clean energy generation continentwide by 2025, and the Arctic Council, which is pursuing an ambitious agenda under the current U.S. chairmanship to address climate change, support Arctic Ocean stewardship, and improve economic and living conditions in the region. Arctic Council nations also have committed to adopt a regional target this spring to curb black carbon pollution in order to reduce Arctic warming and protect public health. Tillerson should explain his vision for U.S. engagement with these partnerships.

Should the United States backslide on the international climate effort, it would, of course, damage its diplomatic credibility and complicate U.S. relationships with many countries and major global powers. It is worth noting that all 196 countries represented at the U.N. climate summit in Marrakech, Morroco, took the opportunity to issue a joint declaration supporting the implementation of the Paris Agreement in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. presidential election.

But such backsliding would not result only in soured diplomatic relationships. A key feature of the Paris Agreement is that all countries, including major emerging economies such as China and India, take on responsibilities—now and going forward—to address the climate challenge and report on progress. If U.S. dedication to reduce greenhouse gas pollution at home and abroad dissipates, the country will weaken its negotiating position. That would mean less power to leverage climate action from other nations in the future and less power to ensure that all countries are held accountable for the greenhouse gas pollution imposed on U.S. and global populations.

Pursuing U.S. benefits from clean energy development

The long-term economic interests of the United States differ markedly from those of a publicly traded oil and gas company beholden to its shareholders and quarterly earnings. With the fossil fuel industry standing to lose more than $30 trillion in the global pivot toward clean energy over the next 25 years, clean energy may primarily connote threats and losses to an industry representative.

In contrast, expanded use of clean energy should represent enhancement of American economic security to a secretary of state. High levels of greenhouse gas pollution are costly due to the destructive effects of climate change—which include not only storms, wildfires, and sea level rise but also harms to human health and agriculture. In 2016, there were 12 severe weather and climate-related events in the United States, with losses of more than $1 billion. Globally, unchecked climate change has the capacity to cause global per capita gross domestic product to be 23 percent below a scenario without warming in 2100. In 2016, experts in the World Economic Forum recognized failure to address climate change as the greatest global threat, with the power to produce cascading risks such as water shortages, involuntary migration, and social instability.

To a secretary of state, clean energy should also represent economic opportunities for the American people. In the United States, economic growth and greenhouse gas pollution have decoupled: Gross domestic product has increased even as emissions have declined. Renewable energy costs are falling and are cheaper than fossil fuel power in a growing number of markets. The U.S. solar industry alone employs approximately 300,000 people, and its workforce has increased 20 percent each year for three consecutive years. Globally, investment in renewables reached a record $286 billion in 2015, with developing countries accounting for more than half of this amount.

At the hearing, Tillerson should describe his assessment of how climate change affects the national and global economy—and what his approaches would be to mitigate the economic threats of climate change and maximize the opportunities of clean energy development.

Promoting ocean sustainability and the Blue Economy

The Obama administration made extraordinary progress both on domestic ocean policy and in building international cooperation to protect and restore oceans worldwide. Tillerson should explain at the hearing how he would build on this progress and advance international ocean initiatives that benefit the American people; U.S. allies; and the industries, communities, and livelihoods that depend on healthy and productive seas.

One case in point is the effort to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in order to ensure sustainable ocean ecosystems and fair trade practices for American fishermen and seafood producers who operate under some of the world’s strictest sustainability standards. The Department of State estimates that $9 billion to $12 billion of the world’s seafood supply is illegally caught each year. This undermines honest American fishermen, consumers, and the health and viability of global fisheries. In addition, illegal fishing practices have been linked to other illicit activity such as labor exploitation, human trafficking, and drug trafficking.

Tillerson also should describe his vision for advancing Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, so that the United States can secure the agreement’s broadly recognized economic and security benefits. In 2012, as CEO of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson wrote an eloquent letter to then-Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-IN) of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that highlighted the economic value of legal certainty for enterprises such as Exxon Mobil and the resulting benefits for the United States. Tillerson wrote, “U.S. accession is important to our company—and arguably to America’s energy security.” Exxon Mobil, he stated, supported “positive Senate action on UNCLOS.” Tillerson’s position at that time put him in good company, among the administrations of the previous four presidents, an unbroken succession of their Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and major labor and environmental organizations.

In addition, Tillerson should address how he would maintain the current global momentum fostered through U.S. leadership to protect and restore the world’s oceans. Over the past three years, the U.S. State Department spearheaded the convening of annual international “Our Ocean” conferences that have resulted in billions of dollars in commitments from governmental and nongovernmental sources and vital protections for ocean ecosystems and sustainable ocean industries. The series is scheduled to continue for at least three more years, with events planned in Malta, Indonesia, and Norway, but U.S. leadership remains essential to muster the international response required to address growing international threats such as overfishing, ocean acidification, and marine debris.


A viable candidate for secretary of state would champion the energy and environmental policies that benefit the American people and its allies. These include policies to reduce U.S. and global greenhouse gas pollution, to support U.S. and global clean energy development, and to protect the health and productivity of the world’s oceans. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has an opportunity on January 11 to provide a window into whose interests—those of the oil and gas industry or those of the American people—the State Department would serve under the leadership of Rex Tillerson.

Gwynne Taraska is the Associate Director of Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Cathleen Kelly is a Senior Fellow at the Center. Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center. Shiva Polefka is a Policy Analyst for the Ocean Policy program at the Center. Avery Siciliano is a Research Associate for the Ocean Policy program at the Center.

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Gwynne Taraska

Director, International Climate Policy

Cathleen Kelly

Senior Fellow

Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

Shiva Polefka

Associate Director, Ocean Policy

Avery Siciliano

Research Associate, Ocean Policy