The Planet

The Corrupt Climate Criminal Who Could Be Secretary of State

by Ben Jervey

January 13, 2017
Former Exxon Mobile Executive Rex Tillerson appears before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for his confirmation hearing for the post of Secretary of State on Capitol Hill.

This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as Secretary of State after a 41-year career working for oil giant ExxonMobil—the last 11 as chairman and CEO. Previously, Tillerson was awarded the Russian “Order of Friendship” by Vladimir Putin, oversaw an ExxonMobil subsidiary when the company’s private security forces allegedly engaged in torture and human rights abuses in Indonesia, “defied State Department policy” to cut a direct deal with Kurdish Regional Government, and once told Charlie Rose, “My philosophy is to make money.”

Tillerson has foreign policy experience—exclusively devoted to extracting oil and generating a profit.

Tillerson was grilled over the past few days by both Democratic and Republican Senators for his ties to Russia, his position on climate change, and his company’s long, shady history of perpetuating the denial of climate science. On Wednesday, the hearing was interrupted multiple times by protesters, some from Greenpeace, and the Committee retreated behind closed doors for the final stretch of questioning on Thursday.

If confirmed, Tillerson will serve as America’s top diplomat. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll, who wrote a book about ExxonMobil, perhaps put it best when he said, “As an exercise of public diplomacy, it will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.”

Still, Tillerson managed to surprise with a couple of surprisingly unapocalyptic climate-related statements.

Of the Paris Agreement, he broke with Trump, who said on the campaign trail that he’d “rip up” the global climate deal:  "It’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table with the conversations around how to deal with the threats of climate change”—though it doesn’t take the most cynical mind to imagine just how disruptive a State Department delegation under the guidance of a lifelong oil baron would be at future United Nations climate meetings.

Tillerson also established that he’s not an outright climate denier in the mold of the President-elect. Tillerson said Wednesday that he believes “the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken.”

Of course, we know from the award-winning reporting of InsideClimateNews and the Los Angeles Times that ExxonMobil was conducting its own cutting-edge climate research as early as the 1970s and was factoring sea level rise and global warming impacts into its own business plans, all the while funding efforts to manufacture doubt about the realities of climate science in the public sphere.

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine pushed Tillerson repeatedly on what ExxonMobil knew about climate change and when it knew it. “Are these conclusions about ExxonMobil’s history of promoting and funding climate science denial, despite its internal awareness of the reality of climate change during your tenure with the company true or false?” Kaine asked.

Tillerson wasn’t going there. "Since I'm no longer CEO of ExxonMobil, I am in no position to speak on their behalf," he said. "You'll have to ask them." Kaine asked if he was refusing to answer or simply lacked the knowledge to do so, Tillerson cracked, "A little of both,” drawing some chuckles from the crowd and an icy glare from Kaine.

Under Tillerson’s leadership ExxonMobil has actively fought against efforts to uncover its institutionalized climate denial, even suing two state attorneys general who were conducting investigations into the company’s climate deceit.

“Tillerson is still lying about what Exxon knew about climate change. Asked directly about the company’s climate cover-up, Tillerson demurred and denied,” said May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org, one of seven organizations and individuals that have been issued subpoenas by ExxonMobil related to the lawsuits against the state AGs.  “We need a Secretary of State who acknowledges that the climate crisis requires bold action, not an oil industry CEO who is dedicated to spreading misinformation. Tillerson deserves a federal investigation into Exxon’s lies, not a cabinet appointment.”

After the hearing, Senator Kaine also bashed Tillerson’s non-answer on Twitter:

If anyone was tougher on Tillerson than Kaine, it was Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, who early in the hearing grilled Tillerson on his cozy relationship with Putin and ties to Russia.

“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio asked directly. Tillerson replied, “I would not use that term.” Rubio went on to describe Russia’s military action in Aleppo, and the killing of journalists critical to Russia. Tillerson again demurred. “None of this is classified,” Rubio shot back. “These people are dead!”

Speaking to the oil deals that Tillerson negotiated while running ExxonMobil, including a massive joint venture for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Russian Arctic (the deal that secured Tillerson that “Order of Friendship” from Putin), Senator Bob Corker brought up sanction. Specifically, he asked if ExxonMobil had lobbied against Russian sanctions, which according to the company’s own regulatory filings, would cost the company up to $1 billion.

“I have never lobbied against sanctions,” Tillerson said. “To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.” Lobbying disclosure forms that Corker held up in his hand to show to Tillerson, however, show that ExxonMobil pretty clearly did lobby against a 2014 bill that would impose sanctions on Russia’s oil sector after its invasion of Ukraine. The evidence is so damning that it seems Tillerson may well have lied under oath.

On the Middle East, Tillerson tried to keep the conversation about defeating ISIS, but Senators Rubio and Rand Paul of Kentucky pushed him on, respectively, human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Iraq War.

While calling the Iraq War a mistake, he failed to mention how much ExxonMobil had profited off of the prolonged U.S. occupation, during which Tillerson undermined American efforts by striking a direct deal with the Kurds.

In his book, Private Empire, Coll explores how ExxonMobil operated as a “transnational corporate sovereign in the world.” There’s no question that Tillerson has foreign policy experience, but that experience has been exclusively devoted to extracting oil and gas and generating a profit. Tillerson routinely did business that flouted American foreign policy, and was notoriously ambivalent about human rights, Democracy, and other critical policy concerns that represent the best of America’s contributions to the world. And to expect any sudden birth of conscience within Tillerson on climate change, the world’s greatest international diplomatical challenge, would be naive.

If you’re trying to sum up a complex man like Tillerson, it may be best to heed the words of Oil Change International’s Stephen Kretzamann: “Rex Tillerson seems determined to run U.S. foreign policy like he ran Exxon: deny, evade, and even lie, in order to defend power and certainly without regard to any moral compass.”

Photo by Melina Mara for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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The Corrupt Climate Criminal Who Could Be Secretary of State