Overnight Energy: Rough hearing for Tillerson

Overnight Energy: Rough hearing for Tillerson
© Getty Images

TOUGH START FOR TILLERSON: Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO nominated by President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE to be secretary of State, had a rocky confirmation hearing on Wednesday, facing tough questions from both side of the aisle on issues ranging from Russia to climate change.

Democrats assailed Tillerson over Exxon Mobil's lobbying on Russia sanctions during his tenure as head of the oil giant, and none offered their support for his nomination.

His more worrisome interactions, though, came with a Republican. Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues MORE blistered Tillerson with tough questions on Russia sanctions, and Tillerson's shaky answers on human rights in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia led him to defend his very worldview to Rubio.


"My interests are the same as yours. Our interests are not different, senator," Tillerson said to Rubio. "There seems to be some misunderstanding that I see the world through a different lens. I do not. I share all the same values you share and want the same things, the world over, in terms of freedom."

Rubio's support is critical for Tillerson: if he opposes confirmation either in committee or on the floor, it would be a major roadblock for his ascension to Foggy Bottom.

Russia was the issue of the day for members.

Asked by Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezGraham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward MORE (D-N.J.) if President-elect Donald Trump agrees with Tillerson's denouncements of Russia's forays into Crimea and Syria and on human rights, the nominee said he wasn't sure.

"The president-elect and I have not had the opportunity to discuss this specific issue or this specific area," Tillerson said.  

"That's pretty amazing," Menendez replied.  

Tillerson also denied lobbying against Russia sanctions as Exxon's CEO, but he later conceded that he had asked the State Department for leniency on when the sanctions would be applied. When pressed on the company's lobbying work in Congress, he said he couldn't remember if the company supported or opposed Obama-era sanctions on Moscow.

"Rex Tillerson's hearing is troubling," Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter.

"Despite disclosures from Exxon documenting work in lobbying against Iran Sanctions, Tillerson says Exxon did not lobby to his knowledge. Tillerson hearing raises real questions as to whether PEOTUS & cabinet are prepared to stand up to Putin, Iran & represent US interests," Schumer tweeted.

Read more here.

MIXED MESSAGES ON CLIMATE?: Tillerson walked a fine line on climate policy.

He broke with Trump and said he supports the United States staying in the Paris climate deal, saying, "I think we're better served by being at that table than by leaving that table."

But he said he didn't see climate change as the major national threat that several Democrats, including many in the Obama administration, say it is.

"I don't see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do," Tillerson said.

He also expressed doubt that any particular weather event, like Hurricane Sandy, can be made more likely by climate change.

But Tillerson also said limitations to the science do not mean the country should not act to fight climate change.

"The fact that we cannot predict with precision, and certainly all of the models that we discussed that day, none of them agreed ... doesn't mean that we should do nothing," Tillerson said.

For more about Tillerson's answers at Wednesday's hearing, read here.

SIX INDICTED IN VW SCANDAL: The Justice Department is bringing criminal charges against six high-level Volkswagen employees for their alleged roles in the company's diesel emissions cheating scandal.

As part of a plea deal announced by federal prosecutors on Wednesday, the automaker has also agreed to admit wrongdoing and pay a record $4.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties.

"Volkswagen obfuscated, they denied and they ultimately lied," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a press conference with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyOvernight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group Overnight Energy: Automakers group sides with Trump in emissions lawsuit | Latest on California wildfires | Walden won't seek reelection | Park Service scraps plan to charge protesters for security MORE.

The employees are being charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., defraud customers and violate the Clean Air Act.

In 2015, federal officials revealed that Volkswagen was deliberately skirting emissions testing for some of its diesel vehicles. Regulators said VW had equipped up to 11 million vehicles with "defeat devices," or software allowing the cars to emit more toxic chemicals than is allowed under federal law.

Read more here.

INTERIOR CALLS FOR HIGHER COAL FEES: Obama administration officials are calling for higher royalty rates on coal mined from public land, one of several conclusions to come from a year-long report on the federal coal leasing program.

The 1,300-page report comes a year after the Obama administration announced it would reassess the leasing program for coal mining on federal land.

Obama officials determined that the royalty rate, which hasn't been raised in 30 years, is too low, and that any formal overhaul of the coal program should include higher fees.

President-elect Donald Trump's administration will decide whether to follow the conclusions in the report. Trump's Interior secretary nominee, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) opposed the coal leasing moratorium while serving in the House.

"We have a responsibility to ensure the public -- including state governments -- get a fair return from the sale of America's coal, operate the program efficiently and in a way that meets the needs of our neighbors in coal communities and minimize the impact coal production has on the planet that our children and grandchildren will inherit," Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellNational parks pay the price for Trump's Independence Day spectacle Overnight Energy: Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone | UN report offers dire climate warning | Trump expected to lift ethanol restrictions Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone MORE said in a statement.

Read more here.

FUTURE DARK FOR YUCCA, MONIZ SAYS: Energy Secretary Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizAl Franken to host SiriusXM radio show Two years after Harvey's devastation, the wake-up call has not been heeded Biden under pressure from environmentalists on climate plan MORE on Wednesday shot down Yucca Mountain supporters who think the project will move ahead once President Obama's out of office.

He said at a National Press Club event that local opposition in Nevada means the nuclear waste repository will never happen.

Moniz said the three decades of the fight has shown him "a consent-based approach is the only way we're going to get across the finish line."

"You have to have local, state and federal people lined up," he said.

President-elect Donald Trump has been unclear on his position on Yucca, but Republicans and the nuclear industry are optimistic that he'll let it move forward.

PERRY CUTS TIES WITH DAKOTA PIPELINE COMPANIES: Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry cut ties with the companies involved in the Dakota Access pipeline ahead of his confirmation process.

In ethics paperwork published Wednesday, the former Texas governor said he quit the boards of Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics on Dec. 31.

Perry wrote in the paperwork that he still holds stock in them, though he's working to divest and will do so within 90 days of his confirmation, and will avoid matters that impact his financial interests until he is divested.

ON TAP THURSDAY I: Army, Navy and Air Force officials will discuss energy issues at U.S. military bases at a Pew Charitable Trust event.

ON TAP THURSDAY II: EPA and Agriculture Department legal officials will preview the Trump administration at an Environmental Law Institute event.

ON TAP NEXT WEEK: Mark your calendars for more confirmation hearings: The Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear from Zinke next Tuesday, and EPA nominee Scott Pruitt will go before the Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday.


Check out Wednesday's stories ...

-Rocky start for Trump's State pick
-Six VW employees indicted in emissions scandal
-Tillerson says he hasn't talked Russia policy with Trump
-Interior proposes raising royalty rates on federal coal mining
-Live coverage: Tillerson's hearing for State
-West Virginia attorney general may challenge Manchin

Please send tips and comments to Timothy Cama, tcama@thehill.com; and Devin Henry, dhenry@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Timothy_Cama@dhenry@thehill