Rex Tillerson.
Rex Tillerson. (Photo: Office of the President-elect via Wikimedia Commons)

SAN FRANCISCO —It seems the U.S. Senate isn’t the only place you’ll find folks fighting about Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson, the former CEO and chair of Exxon Mobil Corp. and President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, deftly avoided answering questions about climate change during confirmation hearings earlier this month.

Now lawyers at the Bay Area plaintiffs powerhouse Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy are seeking to grill him on the subject as part of a deposition in an environmental lawsuit. However, lawyers for an oil industry trade group where Tillerson until recently served as a board member have labeled the demand to depose him a publicity stunt that has no legal merit.

The deposition fight has broken out in a lawsuit brought on behalf of a group of young environmentalists who sued the Obama administration in 2015 to press for more aggressive steps to curb carbon dioxide emissions. In November, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken of the District of Oregon denied the government’s request to toss the suit on separation of powers grounds and for lack of standing, holding “that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

Cotchett’s Philip Gregory filed a notice demanding that Tillerson sit for a deposition late last year. The plaintiffs have claimed that Tillerson is subject to discovery in the suit since up until December he sat on the board of the American Petroleum Institute, or API, an oil industry trade group that has intervened in the suit. Plaintiffs proposed that the deposition be held in the Dallas office of Sidley Austin, one of API’s defense firms, on Jan. 19, the day before President Trump’s inauguration.

API’s lawyers at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn and Sidley, however, refused to make Tillerson available. They’ve maintained in court papers that discovery hasn’t even started in the suit and that at the time of the request Tillerson was no longer a member of the organization’s board. In court filings this week, Miller Nash’s C. Marie Eckert wrote that the plaintiffs have made an unreasonable demand for 42 separate categories of documents from Tillerson covering a wide swath of his communication with government officials regarding international and federal climate change efforts.

“For now, the notice of deposition and its request for documents served on the Intervenor-Defendants appears to be nothing more than a mechanism to create media headlines and to harass Mr. Tillerson, who remains in the middle of confirmation proceedings for secretary of state,” Eckert wrote. Eckert didn’t respond to messages Thursday.

A telephonic hearing on the matter is set for Friday.

In a phone interview, Cotchett’s Gregory said that, as the former chair of Exxon, Tillerson possesses “a wealth of information” about what the fossil fuel industry told the federal government.

“What we’re attempting to do here is to take the American Petroleum Institute up on its offer when it first intervened in our case when it said it would open itself up completely to discovery,” Gregory said.

Gregory said that the change in administration has raised the stakes in the suit. “In terms of climate change, [the Obama administration] was a lot of feel-good rhetoric and empty promises followed by no delivery,” he said. “The current administration is certainly not going to be an improvement.”

Contact the reporter at rtodd@alm.com.

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