Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Trump’s expected pick for State runs Exxon and received the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin

Originally published on ThinkProgress

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Rex W. Tillerson, chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corporation at their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Monday, April 16, 2012. Exxon is teaming up with Russian oil giant Rosneft to develop oil and natural gas fields in Russia and North America.The companies on Monday signed an agreement that was first announced in August.(AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Government Press Service)

By Ryan Koronowski

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson once asked, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Rex Tillerson, the CEO of oil and gas giant ExxonMobil will be the nation’s next Secretary of State, according to reporting from NBC News.

Tillerson met with Donald Trump Saturday at Trump Tower, and after cycling through options from former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and ‘Putin’s favorite congressman,” Trump chose the man who may be closer to Vladimir Putin than any other American politician save for Henry Kissinger.

Trump will likely tout Tillerson’s experience on the world stage in his current job leading a giant American company as a qualification to run the State Department. However, ExxonMobil does not see itself as an American company. Lee Raymond, Tillerson’s predecessor, once replied to a question about building more U.S. refinery capacity with a jarring statement: “I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”

Tillerson has extensive dealings with Russia as the company has attempted to increase their upstream oil and gas reserves. After Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea caused international sanctions to clamp down on Russia, it significantly affected the drilling plans of western oil giants ExxonMobil and BP, which had contracts to help Russia drill in the Arctic Kara Sea. Tillerson voiced his opposition to sanctions while flouting diplomatic custom, if not the law, by attending the World Petroleum Congress meeting in Moscow in 2014 while Russia faced additional sanctions.

He and Putin go way back. His ExxonMobil biography concludes with this gem: “In 2013, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation.”

ExxonMobil has for years funded climate denier lawmakers and millions more to groups pushing climate denial, despite the fact that its own scientists confirmed the role fossil fuels has in climate change decades before. Top executives knew about the reality of the science and they did their best to block solutions — promoting uncertainty and suing those attempting to investigate whether Exxon knew.

The irony is that Tillerson, while rising through the ranks of, and then leading, the largest publicly-traded oil company on the planet, has made remarks about climate change that put him far from Trump’s policy positions.

Tillerson, speaking as head of ExxonMobil, has backed a price on carbon, and believes climate change brings “real” risks that require “serious” action.

Climate activists, scientists, and people who are remotely concerned about the short, medium, and long-term future of a livable climate should think twice before taking heart from this, however. Tillerson has also replied to queries about cutting carbon emissions with the head-scratching question, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” He believes climate change is something humans will just adapt to, formulating things through a technocratic lens: “it’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.”

Trump’s cabinet is chock full of climate deniers. The president elect has dubbed climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and he has pledged to take the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, which is the most significant thing the world has agreed to do to begin to rein in emissions. Even if Tillerson were to moderate Trump’s stance somehow on retreating from the agreement, the mechanisms through which the United States would fulfill its commitments to the agreement — the Clean Power Plan, for instance — are already on the chopping block, under the authority of other agencies to be led by opponents of any reasonable climate action.

Tillerson rose to the top of ExxonMobil based on his performance running the corporation’s Russia account, often negotiating directly with Putin during the last decade. He and others at Exxon had close ties to the Bush White House, State Department, and Commerce Department. “The Bush administration had decided that American foreign policy would embrace and promote the direct ownership of Russian oil by U.S. corporations,” Steve Coll wrote in his “biography” of ExxonMobil, Private Empire.

Things got more complicated for Exxon in Russia in recent years. In 2014, the United States and European Union agreed to crack down on Russia’s access to Western fossil fuel technology for future development of deepwater, Arctic offshore, and shale oil and gas deposits. Russia has the largest combined oil and gas reserves in the world but lacks the oil and gas technology needed to access complex and dangerous deposits like those deep under the waters under Russia’s Arctic coast. So it enters into deals with the Western oil giants — most prominently Exxon — to exploit those resources. Exxon and Russia agreed to a $3.2 billion deal that gives the company access to a Texas-sized chunk of the Arctic. This deal suffered fatally after the sanctions went in place, and the company stands to gain a lot if the sanctions fall and it can invest and work in Russia again.

Tillerson currently owns over $233 million worth of Exxon stock, which, if he joins the cabinet, he can legally divest tax-free. He faces a mandatory retirement when he turns 65 in March.

It’s hard to imagine the reaction this appointment will engender in diplomatic circles, let alone environmental circles.

“Just when we thought Trump’s cabinet could not get farther away from the needs of the American people, he sneaks in a Saturday appointment of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State,” Greenpeace USA Spokesperson Cassady Craighill said in a statement. “In this position, Tillerson will try his hardest to silence global initiatives and the right of state attorney generals to hold fossil fuel companies legally accountable for climate change.”

Tillerson will likely have as a deputy at State the neoconservative, unilateralist hawk John Bolton, who declared he was not running for president last year by saying, “I believe I can make the strongest contribution to our future by continuing as a clear and consistent advocate for a strong Reaganite foreign policy.”

About Ryan Koronowski

Research Director at ThinkProgress. Contact me rkoronowski@thinkprogress.org.

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