The group of 21 youth plaintiffs suing the federal government and fossil fuel industry in a climate lawsuit is seeking the testimony of Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil and President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of State.
With support from Eugene-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, Alex Loznak and Jacob Lebel of Douglas County are two of the plaintiffs across the country claiming the federal government is violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, property and public trust resources through the fossil fuel-based national energy system.
“One of the key things that Tillerson knows about is the collusion between government and industry and actions that Exxon has taken to influence and control government policy,” Loznak said. “Even after both industry and government knew that this was occurring and that it was dangerous, Exxon continued to lobby and to influence policy in a way that enhanced the danger to us, the plaintiffs, and the young people of this country.”
The attorneys representing the youth issued a notice Thursday that requests a deposition of Tillerson on Jan. 19 in Dallas, Texas.
The federal government knew about climate change in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration, Loznak said.
“And yet the federal government continued to take actions that made it worse, continued to promote fossil fuel extraction, and even after the industry discovered what was going on, they continued to work hand-in-hand to enhance fossil fuel extraction and use and to avoid taking actions to limit the emissions,” Loznak said. “Nobody knows better than Rex of just how in bed the industry and federal government are in this country when it comes to energy policy.”
Loznak said he thinks Tillerson’s deposition will be very significant to the lawsuit.
Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm, is representing three trade associations as defendants in the suit, American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers and American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. Because the trade groups represent ExxonMobil, the company and thereby its CEO is a party to the case.
According to research from Columbia Journalism School, Exxon has known about climate change since the 1970s, while at the same time it has funded campaigns to deny its existence.
“In some cases (Tillerson) has said that climate change exists, but he will not say how much it’s caused by human activity and the fuel industry,” Lebel said. “He has used that as PR for Exxon, all the while continuing exploring for more fossil fuel reserves and drilling sites, which according to leading climate scientists like Jim Hansen, must not be drilled or extracted or taken out of the ground if we are to have any chance of limiting negative impacts of carbon emissions.”
The fact that the youth plaintiffs issued a deposition to such a powerful and symbolic figure as Rex Tillerson shows the power of the youth movement and the lawsuit, according to Lebel. He added that the group of young people will be affected by the decisions Tillerson makes under President-elect Trump, so it’s important that they hold him accountable.
In November, Federal Judge Ann Aiken ruled that the youth had a valid case and could move forward with the lawsuit.
“Now we’re going to trial later this year and that allows us to really have access to all of that information about how these fossil fuel industries and the United States federal government have contributed to our current state of affairs as far as carbon emissions, and how they’ve threatened the youth of today and future generations,” Lebel said.
Although they are seeking Tillerson’s deposition specifically because of his ties to Exxon, Lebel said his nomination as Secretary of State adds an urgent aspect to the lawsuit.
“He’s been at the helm of this company that has actively covered up scientific research when it worked to their advantage business wise, and that has resulted and will result in the death of people and social unrest, and immense environmental damage, and damage to the lives of future generations,” Lebel said. To Lebel, all the profits ExxonMobil has made since its leaders found out about its contributions to climate change can be counted as blood money.
A federal judge will hear from the youth’s attorneys as well as the corporate attorneys to decide whether or not Tillerson should be deposed.
Though the plaintiff’s attorneys are not asking Tillerson to testify in the trial, they will be able to use the information from his deposition in court.
“We’re both really proud to be standing alongside this incredible group of youth, outstanding attorneys who are arguing this case and the research team that is going to be compiling all of these very damning facts for the trial,” Loznak said.
Before the lawsuit goes to trial next summer or fall, he and the youth’s research team plans to compile the evidence from depositions, interviews and other research.
“I think when our team starts really turning over logs, turning over rocks and finding out these secrets, it will shock and horrify people,” Loznak said. “They will realize how far up this thing goes, how long government and industry have known, and how conscientiously and intentionally they have colluded to trample on our constitutional rights. That’s what we’re going to prove during the trial.”