Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, is expected to be chosen as Secretary of State. Many environmentalists worry that American diplomacy could become an extension of fossil fuel interests.
Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO. Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum
Rex Tillerson, the CEO of fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil, is expected to be nominated as Secretary of State by Donald Trump. If confirmed, Tillerson's conflicts of interest could gut legal efforts to hold his company accountable for contributing to climate change.
According to sources close to the Trump transition team, the 64-year-old businessman, who's spent four decades at ExxonMobil and nurtures a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, spent several hours meeting with the President-elect on Saturday. Other candidates still in the running for the position are former-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.
Tillerson, unlike most of Trump's Cabinet picks so far, offers shockingly little public sector experience, having spent his entire career at ExxonMobil where his first job was as a production engineer (he assumed the role of CEO in 2006). The oilman, however, has excelled at cutting deals in the energy industry—a quality that Trump personally prizes, and one that has opponents wondering whether American diplomacy could become an extension of fossil fuel interests.
Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that was recently targeted for its involvement in ExxonMobil investigations, believes that bigger issues are at hand. Kimmell worries that Tillerson's possible confirmation could seriously undermine Paris Agreement efforts if the oil executive is unable to put aside his vested interest in the company. Tillerson currently owns $233,078,184 in ExxonMobil stock, according to an SEC filing.
"The goals set by the Paris Agreement can only be met if companies like Exxon radically change their business model. As Exxon is currently configured, its prosperity hinges on the international treaty not succeeding," Kimmell told me. "After you've spent whole career at Exxon, could you put that aside?"
Over the last year, ExxonMobil has been the target of numerous probes by United States attorneys general. Lawmakers want to know if the company deceived the public about the effects that carbon emissions have on the environment. They're also hoping to find evidence that ExxonMobil misled shareholders about the negative impact climate change-related regulations would have on its assets by writing down the value of its reserves.
"We don't do write-downs," Tillerson told Energy Intelligence last year. "We are not going to bail you out by writing it down," he added, despite the company's longstanding practice of doing just that.
Under Tillerson, ExxonMobil has fought almost every request for access to internal documents. With the help of its lawyers, the company has attempted to subpoena and sue journalists, organizations, and attorneys general, citing violations to its First Amendment rights.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether Tillerson, as Secretary of State, would have any influence on the ongoing investigations. And what happens if ExxonMobil is found guilty of the accusations leveled against it?
GOP members who are sympathetic to the fossil fuel industry will almost certainly be emboldened by Trump's plan to "unleash an energy revolution." With the addition of Tillerson to the incoming Administration, ExxonMobil would have powerful friends in very high places. Already, House Science Committee chairman, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, has wielded his subpoena power to defend ExxonMobil against a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, calling the recent suite of probes a "witch hunt" and "fool's errand."
In light of these questions, some environmental groups feel it will be necessary to take action against the company.
"We'll be pressuring Senators to turn the confirmation process into a hearing on ExxonMobil's history of climate deception," May Boeve, executive director of the environmental advocacy nonprofit 350.org, said in a statement.
"If Exxon is found guilty of working with other oil companies to deceive the public and their shareholders about the threat of climate change, they could be on the hook for fraud and racketeering charges."
"Members of Congress should grill Tillerson about his history of supporting climate denial. ClimateTruth.org and our over 200,000 members will be scruitinizing every Senator as they proceed in the confirmation hearings," ClimateTruth.org, a grassroots environmental organization, also said in a statement.
Where Tillerson and Trump slightly differ, however, is on the matter of climate change. At least, superficially. While the President-elect believes that man-made global warming is a manufactured hoax, Tillerson was responsible for ExxonMobil publicly stating that climate change is real and "warrants action."
But many environmentalists argue that Tillerson's alleged progressivism toward climate change is a thinly veiled cover-up for ExxonMobil's destructive agenda. "ExxonMobil is still a leading funder of climate denial and is pursuing a business plan that will destroy our future. Tillerson deserves a federal investigation, not federal office," Boeve said.
Under Tillerson's leadership, the oil and gas company also won the right to explore for oil in Russian-controlled Arctic waters that had opened up due to melting sea ice. The extremely high-profile deal, which was struck in 2011, later fizzled with the annexation of Crimea that caused the United States to issue sanctions on Russia, indefinitely halting ExxonMobil's business there.
"The Paris Agreement has left many things for future years to work out," Kimmell added. "In a few years, countries will need to come back with newer, more ambitious pledges. I'm concerned that without US leadership, we're not going to get a successful result there."