Donald Trump has confirmed Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of energy company ExxonMobil, as his official pick for secretary of state.
As chairman and CEO of the world’s largest oil and gas company, Tillerson has spent decades representing the company’s interests in Russia and in 2013 was awarded an Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin himself.
Thanks to an army of lobbyists, companies like ExxonMobil have been influencing of foreign policy for years. But the position of America’s top diplomat comes with an assumed degree of impartiality.
Tillerson is set to retire from ExxonMobil next year, but his shares in the company are worth $151m, according to a recent securities filling. Of particular concern are ExxonMobil’s tie-ups with Russia’s state-run oil company, Rosneft.
In 2011, Tillerson signed a deal, in which the two companies agreed to pool resources to drill in Russian-controlled areas of the Arctic, the Black Sea, and Siberia. But after the US imposed sanctions against Russia over its dealings in the Ukraine, Exxon was forced to abandon the venture.
Speaking on CBS, the Senator John McCain said he feared Tillerson’s history in this area “would colour his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat”. (Other senior Republicans, such as Condoleezza Rice, have endorsed Tillerson.)
But if politicians are ambivalent about the nomination, the environmental movement is devastated.
Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven compared Tillerson to a “real-life JR Ewing”, the amoral oil baron from the U.S television series Dallas, in a press release on Tuesday.
For Jamie Henn of 350.org, an online environmentalist platform, putting an oil executive in charge of State Department “is like giving Voldemort the keys to Hogwarts”.
So is the prospective secretary of state the scariest thing since He Who Must Not Be Named? Here are three reasons he might be:
1. His impact will span nations and generations
As Secretary of State, Tillerson will be in charge of US engagement in international climate politics. Not only will this give him the capacity to stop US participation in the annual Paris agreement meetings, he also has the power to ease the way for international oil projects – from ExxonMobil’s plans in the Arctic to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.
Such moves would undermine President Obama’s hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. A focus on oil would also contravene scientists’ estimates that a third of known oil reserves and half of natural gas must remain in the ground if temperatures are to be held to a 2°C rise on pre-industrial levels.
2. He knows how to spin
ExxonMobil has said in a statement on its website, that it “supports the work of the Paris signatories” and “acknowledges the ambitions” of the climate agreement’s goals. Tillerson himself has said he considers climate change to be “serious” and supports a price on carbon.
This position has led some commentators to describe Tillersen as “to the left of Donald Trump” on the subject. But Tillerson’s concern about climate change is combined with a hard-nosed commercialism.
At a recent Oil and Money conference in London, Tillerson reassured delegates that global energy demand will require the oil of five Saudi Arabias by 2040 – a projection that could bring the Paris agreement’s targets crashing down. Jamie Henn has also argued that Exxon’s support for a price on carbon is little more than green washing. “When you look closely,” he writes, “All of the numbers that Exxon puts forward for a carbon price are so low that the only impact would be to help Exxon corner the market on natural gas.”
3. His record on transparency is questionable
ExxonMobil Corp. is facing a share-holder led lawsuit over its alleged failure to disclose to investors and regulators the risks posed by the burning of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the company has sought an injunction against two attorney generals who were attempting to investigate the company’s early knowledge of these dangers.
ExxonMobil has also operated in dictatorships, such as Equatorial Guinea, leading Corinna Gilfillan, head of the US branch NGO Global Witness, to declare: “On Rex Tillerson’s watch, Exxon […] has systematically struck backroom deals with tyrannical regimes and been at the forefront of Big Oil’s efforts to gut laws that would reduce corruption in the oil, gas and mining sector.”
In order to take the reins of power, Tillerson must first be confirmed by the US Senate. This process will happen in January 2017 and will give senators the chance to turn the process into an audit of what campaign groups such as 350.org have called Exxon’s “history of climate lies”.
Also, more than 20 young people (aged 9 to 20) have won the right to bring a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that the lack of action on climate change has failed to safeguard the interests of future generations. So perhaps there is still a chance the environmentalist’s “Voldemort” will be disarmed in true Harry Potter style – by a group of enterprising teenagers.