Rex Tillerson, the former oil executive under consideration for U.S. secretary of state, is trying to avoid giving testimony in a federal lawsuit over climate change, according to a lawyer for a group of teenagers who filed the suit.
Lawyers for the teenagers, who sued the federal government claiming it violated their constitutional rights by causing global warming, were scheduled to depose Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, in his capacity as a board member of the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group.
The lawyers planned to ask Tillerson when he first learned of the impact the burning of fossil fuels was having on the Earth's atmosphere.
His answers might then be used to prove the government, working with the energy and manufacturing industries, continued to allow activities harmful to the environment despite knowing the risks to future generations, said Julia Olson, a lawyer in Eugene, Oregon, who is executive director of Our Children's Trust and representing the teenagers.
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Tillerson's deposition was set for Jan. 19, a day before President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration.
But Olson said the API's lawyers told her in a letter that Tillerson should not have to testify because he is no longer affiliated with the group. Her team has asked API to prove Tillerson had left the group on Dec. 28, when they sent notice of their intent to depose him.
"If he was still on the board on the date of notice of deposition, he can still be deposed," Olson said.
The lawsuit, brought in federal court in Oregon, says the U.S. government helped to cause climate change through its policies, thus denying a group of young people their constitutional right to life, liberty and property.
The API and two other industry groups intervened in the case, claiming a judgment requiring the government to tighten environmental regulations would harm their business interests.
Tillerson announced he was retiring from ExxonMobil on Dec. 14, a day after Trump announced his nomination as secretary of state. The API has not announced any change to Tillerson's role in its organization, but its president released a statement congratulating Tillerson on his nomination on Dec. 13.
An API spokesman, lawyers for the API and a spokesman for the Trump transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case is Juliana v. U.S., U.S. District Court, District of Oregon (Eugene), No. 15-cv-01517.
(This version of the story was refiled to say the API's lawyers told her in a letter, not that they told her by telephone, in paragraph six)
(Reporting By Emily Flitter; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)