Rex Tillerson Could Be America’s Most Dangerous Secretary of State

The former Exxon Mobil CEO spent his entire adult life working for a company that has left a trail of carnage in its ruthless pursuit of oil.

Antonia Juhasz January 9, 2017

My phi­los­o­phy is to make money.”

—Rex Tillerson


n Jan­u­ary 1, Rex Tiller­son retired from oil giant Exxon Mobil after 41 years, the last 10 as CEO and chair­man of the board. When he appears in Jan­u­ary before the U.S. Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee to be con­sid­ered for U.S. Sec­re­tary of State, Exxon Mobil will be prepar­ing to appear before a jury at the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, just blocks away. There, the com­pa­ny will face alle­ga­tions that secu­ri­ty forces under its employ engaged in seri­ous human rights abus­es, includ­ing mur­der, tor­ture, sex­u­al vio­lence, kid­nap­ping, bat­tery, assault, burn­ing, arbi­trary arrest, deten­tion and false impris­on­ment. The com­plaint specif­i­cal­ly names Rex Tillerson. 

Among the plain­tiffs, all of whom use alias­es out of fear for their lives, is John Doe II.” Accord­ing to the com­plaint, in August 2000, sol­diers work­ing for Exxon Mobil beat and tor­tured him using elec­tric­i­ty all over his body, includ[ing] his gen­i­tals.” After approx­i­mate­ly three months, the sol­diers took off his blind­fold, took him out­side the build­ing where he had been detained and showed him a pit where there was a large pile of human heads. The sol­diers threat­ened to kill him and add his head to the pile.” He was ulti­mate­ly released, only to have the sol­diers return lat­er to burn down his house.

John Doe I, et al., v. Exxon Mobil Cor­po­ra­tion, et al. is await­ing a tri­al date expect­ed any day now,” accord­ing to lead plain­tiff attor­ney Ter­rence Collingsworth. The com­plaint alleges that in 2000, 2001 and 2004, pri­vate mil­i­tary secu­ri­ty forces employed by Exxon Mobil to pro­tect its nat­ur­al gas oper­a­tions in Aceh province, Indone­sia, com­mit­ted the cit­ed offens­es against local vil­lagers. From 1976 to 2005, Aceh was embroiled in a vio­lent inde­pen­dence strug­gle. In the midst of the con­flict, Exxon Mobil essen­tial­ly pri­va­tized Indone­sian sol­diers, the com­plaint argues, despite their well-doc­u­ment­ed his­to­ry of abus­ing Indone­sian cit­i­zens, and aid­ed and abet­ted the human rights vio­la­tions through finan­cial and oth­er direct mate­r­i­al support. 

Exxon Mobil has fought the case for 15 years, deny­ing not the human rights abus­es, but rather that the com­pa­ny should be liable. A fed­er­al judge ruled, how­ev­er, not only that the com­pa­ny must stand tri­al, but also that suf­fi­cient evi­dence demon­strates” that Exxon Mobil cor­po­rate offi­cers exert­ed sig­nif­i­cant con­trol” over the secu­ri­ty deci­sions made by its Indone­sian subsidiary.

A 2006 com­plaint adding new plain­tiffs to the case alleges that top Exxon Mobil offi­cials have been con­tin­u­ous­ly involved” in the Indone­sian oper­a­tions and that Exxon Mobil Corp. offi­cials who have met with Indone­sian offi­cials include … Rex W. Tiller­son, pres­i­dent of Exxon Mobil Corp.” 

It is just one of count­less law­suits, inves­ti­ga­tions and alle­ga­tions con­fronting the com­pa­ny and its for­mer CEO involv­ing human rights abus­es; unsafe work­ing con­di­tions; investor and pub­lic fraud; destruc­tion of the envi­ron­ment, cli­mate and pub­lic health; sup­port of dic­ta­tors; con­tri­bu­tions to glob­al insta­bil­i­ty and inequal­i­ty; and being par­ty to wars and con­flict — in addi­tion to decades of ver­dicts against the com­pa­ny — all of which will fol­low Tiller­son into and haunt the next admin­is­tra­tion, should Con­gress per­mit him to join it. 


Rex Tiller­son has care­ful­ly con­struct­ed a pub­lic veneer for Exxon Mobil as a law-abid­ing, spit and pol­ish, mod­el cor­po­rate cit­i­zen. The sto­ry­line goes that because it is so big and has so much mon­ey, Exxon Mobil can afford to do every­thing just right. That may be true in some cas­es, but more often, Exxon Mobil wields its vast influ­ence and wealth in a man­ner more close­ly in line with the phi­los­o­phy of its infa­mous founder, John D. Rock­e­feller, who once said, The way to make mon­ey is to buy when blood is run­ning in the streets.” 

Rock­e­feller found­ed Stan­dard Oil Com­pa­ny in 1870 and quick­ly built one of the world’s most ruth­less cor­po­rate monop­o­lies. In describ­ing the company’s tac­tics and prac­tices over the next 30 years, the Inter­state Com­merce Commission’s late-19th-cen­tu­ry reports did not mince words: unjust,” inten­tion­al dis­re­gard of rights,” ille­gal,” exces­sive,” extra­or­di­nary,” for­bid­den,” whol­ly inde­fen­si­ble,” obnox­ious,” absurd and inex­cus­able,” and so obvi­ous and pal­pa­ble a dis­crim­i­na­tion that no dis­cus­sion of it is necessary.” 

The nation and the courts were equal­ly repulsed. The Pop­ulist move­ment railed against the ero­sion of democ­ra­cy and sub­se­quent inequal­i­ty result­ing from Stan­dard Oil’s pow­er over the fed­er­al and mul­ti­ple state gov­ern­ments, and in a key 1911 vic­to­ry, a Supreme Court rul­ing broke up Stan­dard Oil into 34 sep­a­rate cor­po­rate parts. The largest pieces were Stan­dard Oil of New Jer­sey — lat­er Exxon — and Stan­dard Oil of New York — lat­er Mobil. In 1999, the two were allowed to re-merge, form­ing today’s Exxon Mobil. It is the world’s largest pub­licly trad­ed oil and gas com­pa­ny, and the sixth-largest com­pa­ny on the plan­et. Were Exxon a coun­try, its $246 bil­lion in rev­enue in 2015 would make it the 42nd-largest by GDP. 

Like gen­er­a­tions of senior man­age­ment before him, Rex Tiller­son has spent his entire career at Exxon Mobil. Recruit­ed fresh out of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin in 1975, Tiller­son, who is known to col­leagues as T‑Rex,” rose through the ranks, becom­ing senior vice pres­i­dent of Exxon Mobil in 2001, pres­i­dent and board mem­ber in 2004, and CEO and board chair­man in 2006. His 2015 salary was $27.3 mil­lion, or about 500 times the medi­an U.S. house­hold income. If con­firmed, he will join what is set to be the wealth­i­est cab­i­net in U.S. history. 

Exxon Mobil is a unique­ly insu­lar com­pa­ny, often referred to as a cult.” In Steve Coll’s Pri­vate Empire: Exxon Mobil and Amer­i­can Pow­er, exec­u­tives of oth­er oil com­pa­nies describe Exxon Mobil as ruth­less, self-iso­lat­ing and inscrutable … prig­gish Pres­by­ter­ian dea­cons” who main­tain kind of a 1950s South­ern reli­gious cul­ture. They’re all engi­neers, most­ly white males, most­ly from the South. … They shared a belief in the One Right Answer.”

All of the top exec­u­tives are imbued with the Exxon cul­ture and regard them­selves as car­ri­ers of the cul­ture,” Neva Good­win, great-grand­daugh­ter of John D. Rock­e­feller, told me in 2013. Tiller­son, she said, is civ­il, but [he] nev­er responds in such a way that sug­gests that he could be at all influ­enced to change his positions.”

As George W. Bush once famous­ly said of Exxon Mobil: Nobody tells those guys what to do.”

Oth­er than a stint as pres­i­dent of the Boy Scouts of Amer­i­ca from 2010 to 2012, Tiller­son does not pub­licly step out­side his role as Exxon Mobil exec­u­tive. It is as its voice that he gives speech­es, offers pol­i­cy analy­ses and grants inter­views. To under­stand Rex Tiller­son as a man or intu­it how he will behave as sec­re­tary of state, there­fore, we must observe Exxon Mobil’s actions under his lead­er­ship and his stat­ed objec­tives for its future. 

Until required to change pol­i­cy in 2014 to con­tin­ue receiv­ing fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tracts, Exxon Mobil failed to meet a sin­gle Human Rights Cam­paign cri­te­ri­on for an LGBTQ-inclu­sive work­place. When I inves­ti­gat­ed Exxon Mobil’s LGBTQ polices for The Advo­cate in 2013, a gay for­mer employ­ee told me, I feel that [Exxon is like that] racist old aunt, that racist grand­fa­ther fig­ure, that per­son com­plete­ly out of touch with the times.”

The word I hear most often to describe Exxon Mobil under Tiller­son is bul­ly.”

It is a view­point shared by Exxon Mobil’s clos­est neigh­bors in its home state of Texas. They are a major pol­luter that is break­ing the law and threat­en­ing the health of mil­lions of Tex­ans and I think they are gross­ly irre­spon­si­ble to their neigh­bors,” says Luke Met­zger, direc­tor of Austin-based non­prof­it Envi­ron­ment Texas. The group is suing Exxon Mobil for break­ing clean air laws at its Bay­town oil refin­ery and chem­i­cal plant more than 4,000 times between 2005 and 2010, pol­lu­tion which Met­zger alleges con­tin­ues to this day in this large­ly His­pan­ic com­mu­ni­ty near Houston. 

In 2013, two work­ers died and 10 were injured with severe burns at Exxon Mobil’s Beau­mont, Texas, refin­ery. The Depart­ment of Labor cit­ed the com­pa­ny for numer­ous safe­ty vio­la­tions that result­ed in the dead­ly flash fire. Peo­ple do get hurt, and it’s because of the way that Exxon han­dles its busi­ness inside,” said Ricky Brooks, pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers local rep­re­sent­ing work­ers at Exxon Mobil’s facil­i­ty in near­by Bay­town, when I spoke with him a few months after the fire.

The com­pa­ny is vehe­ment­ly anti-union, says Brooks, and work­ers, whether union­ized or not, are made to fear for their jobs if they speak out. Size and influ­ence, he argues, allow Exxon Mobil to get away with what oth­ers can­not. Exxon only changes when forced to,” he says, and few peo­ple, or gov­ern­ments for that mat­ter, are in a posi­tion to force them.”

With­in months of my con­ver­sa­tion with Brooks in 2013, farm­ers in Bas­ra, Iraq protest­ed Exxon Mobil, demand­ing com­pen­sa­tion for lost jobs and what they allege is stolen farm­land; fam­i­lies in Mayflower, Ark., were forced from their homes when 210,000 gal­lons of heavy Cana­di­an tar sands oil spilled from a rup­tured Exxon Mobil pipeline; and locals in Eket, Nige­ria protest­ed Exxon Mobil in response to a Novem­ber 2012 oil spill that they said wreaked hav­oc on coastal land and livelihoods.

Why he wants the job

Exxon Mobil oper­ates in some 200 coun­tries and has cur­rent direct joint ven­tures with com­pa­nies from Chi­na and Rus­sia to Sau­di Ara­bia. Accord­ing to Cit­i­zens for Tax Jus­tice, it also keeps a lot of its prof­its out­side the Unit­ed States, with a whop­ping $51 bil­lion off­shored in both 2014 and 2015, and anoth­er $47 bil­lion in 2013. On Forbes’ World’s Most Pow­er­ful Peo­ple 2016, Tiller­son clocks in at #24, while Pres­i­dent Oba­ma is #48. Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry did not make the list.

So why does Rex Tiller­son want a job that could eas­i­ly be seen as a step down in pow­er and influ­ence? A par­tial answer is that Tiller­son turns 65 in March and faced a forced retire­ment. He also has unfin­ished busi­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Rus­sia, which he like­ly does not trust the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to han­dle. His per­son­al inter­ests and those of Exxon Mobil — often referred to as Moth­er Exxon” by employ­ees — have been seem­ing­ly one and the same for his entire adult life.

Rex Tiller­son is leav­ing Exxon Mobil in far worse con­di­tion than when he took over. This is prob­lem­at­ic by sev­er­al mea­sures, includ­ing his own per­son­al lega­cy and fortune.

In 2003, Exxon Mobil had the most prof­itable year of any cor­po­ra­tion ever. It then beat its own record every year for the next five years. Its $45.2 bil­lion in 2008 remained the high­est annu­al cor­po­rate prof­its ever record­ed until sur­passed in 2015 by Apple.

Then oil prices crashed in 2009, and have yet to recov­er. Exxon Mobil’s prof­its in 2015 — though still a stag­ger­ing $16 bil­lion — were 65 per­cent less than 2008’s high, and less than half of what they were in 2014.

Tiller­son owns some 600,000 shares of Exxon Mobil stock and was promised approx­i­mate­ly 1.8 mil­lion more upon his retire­ment. In response to poten­tial­ly insur­mount­able con­flicts of inter­ests as sec­re­tary of state, how­ev­er, his gold­en para­chute was altered one week pri­or to his sched­uled con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing. Tiller­son will sell his cur­rent stocks worth about $54 mil­lion (though val­ued at almost $25 less per share today than 2014) and con­vert the rest to $180 mil­lion in cash that can­not be invest­ed in Exxon Mobil for 10 years.

Exxon Mobil is cash-poor and debt-rid­den, such that, for the first time since the Great Depres­sion, Stan­dard & Poor’s stripped it of a AAA cred­it rat­ing in April 2016, cit­ing the reserve-replace­ment ratio” as the company’s great­est chal­lenge — that is, find­ing enough new oil reserves to replace that which it pumps from the ground. 

The U.S. Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion (SEC) is inves­ti­gat­ing whether Exxon Mobil has been inflat­ing the size of its oil reserves by count­ing reserves as booked” — mean­ing planned and acces­si­ble for pro­duc­ing — when they should not be. In response, the com­pa­ny was forced to report in late Octo­ber that it would like­ly need to de-book” some 3.6 bil­lion bar­rels of tar sands oil in Cana­da and about 1 bil­lion oil-equiv­a­lent bar­rels in oth­er North Amer­i­can frack­ing oper­a­tions. This means that with the stroke of a pen, Exxon Mobil may soon lose near­ly 20 per­cent of its booked reserves — the mea­sure that most deter­mines the val­ue of oil com­pa­ny stock.

To increase its val­ue, there­fore, Exxon Mobil needs more oil. For­tu­nate­ly for the com­pa­ny, it has the poten­tial for a good deal more in Russia’s Arctic. 

In 2001, George W. Bush famous­ly looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, saw his soul and dubbed him Pootie Poot.” The Bush admin­is­tra­tion was not shy about its oil agen­da and how far it would go to achieve it. Russ­ian reserves were a key tar­get, and Putin a lead­ing ally. 

At the time, Tiller­son had already been hard at work build­ing rela­tion­ships in Rus­sia as pres­i­dent of Exxon Nefte­gas Lim­it­ed (19981999), the sub­sidiary respon­si­ble for Exxon Mobil’s Russ­ian and Caspi­an Sea hold­ings. Between 2011 and 2013, after more than a decade of work, Tiller­son signed coop­er­a­tion agree­ments for 10 joint ven­tures with Russia’s state-con­trolled oil com­pa­ny Ros­neft, includ­ing those in the Russ­ian Arc­tic. The Finan­cial Times report­ed in 2014, Rus­sia was going to be Exxon’s next mega-area. And the list of mega-areas in the world is very short.”

As a result, Exxon Mobil’s 63.7 mil­lion-acre Russ­ian hold­ings are near­ly five times larg­er than its sec­ond-largest hold­ings — its 14 mil­lion acres in the Unit­ed States.

The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, how­ev­er, did not see Rus­sia in the same warm light. In 2014, the pres­i­dent imposed sanc­tions against Rus­sia after it sent troops into Crimea. The sanc­tions per­mit some of Exxon Mobil’s projects, but none of its Arc­tic or oth­er off­shore explo­ration, not only halt­ing these oper­a­tions but also mak­ing it impos­si­ble for the com­pa­ny to book the poten­tial­ly enor­mous reserves. 

Exxon Mobil’s Russ­ian Arc­tic hold­ings became even more valu­able when, in late Decem­ber, Oba­ma joined Cana­di­an Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau in ban­ning oil and gas activ­i­ties in vir­tu­al­ly the entire U.S. — and all of Canada’s — Arc­tic waters. Unlike the Russ­ian sanc­tions, which were imple­ment­ed with a pres­i­den­tial exec­u­tive order that can be over­turned by anoth­er such order, the drilling ban is more akin to the des­ig­na­tion of a Nation­al Mon­u­ment and would require an act of Con­gress to overrule.

Accord­ing to Bloomberg, Tiller­son made mul­ti­ple per­son­al vis­its to the White House since 2014 to dis­cuss, among oth­er things, Russ­ian sanc­tions. Unable to budge Oba­ma, Tiller­son may now just get the job done him­self, direct­ing nego­ti­a­tions as sec­re­tary of state and advo­cat­ing for Don­ald Trump to revoke the sanctions.

Trump has Russ­ian sym­pa­thies of his own, and the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment made well-appar­ent its pref­er­ence for his can­di­da­cy over that of Hillary Clin­ton. Trump is also build­ing one of the most fos­sil-fueled admin­is­tra­tions in U.S. his­to­ry. Nonethe­less, I doubt Tiller­son trusts Trump, and he cer­tain­ly did not sup­port Trump.

The oil indus­try, includ­ing Rex Tiller­son, gave its over­whelm­ing finan­cial sup­port to Jeb Bush for pres­i­dent in 2016. Tiller­son gave the max­i­mum indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion of $2,700 to Bush and $5,000 to Bush’s Super PAC. He gave anoth­er $33,400 to the Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee. He nev­er gave a dime to Trump. 

Once it was clear that Bush was no longer a con­tender, the oil indus­try, includ­ing Exxon Mobil’s employ­ees, shift­ed sup­port to Clin­ton. Mean­while, the Exxon Mobil PAC focused on tak­ing the House and Sen­ate for the Repub­li­cans, great­ly increas­ing the mon­ey spent on these races. Exxon Mobil ulti­mate­ly spent near­ly nine times more on con­gres­sion­al races (close to $1.5 mil­lion) than on the pres­i­den­cy (less than $170,000), just bare­ly edg­ing out Koch Indus­tries to become the oil industry’s biggest spender in the 2016 elec­tion, accord­ing to data pro­vid­ed by the Cen­ter for Respon­sive Politics. 

Why would the oil indus­try, a GOP main­stay, put its mon­ey behind Clin­ton? Per­haps the com­pa­nies want­ed to back the odds-on favorite; per­haps an indus­try that works on 25- to 50-year time­lines decid­ed that it could weath­er anoth­er four to eight years of a known quan­ti­ty (even an unfriend­ly one) like Clin­ton bet­ter than an unknown one like Trump, who could cause irrepara­ble dam­age. Con­trol­ling Con­gress was the secu­ri­ty mea­sure against either pres­i­den­tial victor.

But once Trump became pres­i­dent-elect, a full-court Repub­li­can-estab­lish­ment press com­posed of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, James Bak­er, Con­doleez­za Rice and Robert Gates report­ed­ly offered glow­ing endorse­ments” of Tiller­son either to Trump or to Ten­nessee Repub­li­can Bob Cork­er, chair­man of the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee. As I detail in The Bush Agen­da, the ties that bind these men and women to Exxon Mobil run deep. In 2000, for exam­ple, the oil indus­try, includ­ing Exxon Mobil, spent more mon­ey than on any pre­vi­ous elec­tion to get fel­low oil­men Bush and Cheney into office, while Baker’s law firm has rep­re­sent­ed Exxon Mobil for decades, and Gates and Rice have a con­sult­ing firm that has Exxon Mobil as a client. 

Sim­ply put, Exxon Mobil needs the U.S. gov­ern­ment to play ball, or at least behave.

Tiller­son serv­ing as some sort of Trump over­seer for the Bush-era Repub­li­can oil estab­lish­ment, how­ev­er, should raise many red flags, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fel­low Bush admin­is­tra­tion alum John Bolton as his under­sec­re­tary. We have already expe­ri­enced, and con­tin­ue to suf­fer the con­se­quences of, the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by this group in pur­suit of its crude objectives.

By any means necessary

Exxon Mobil has nev­er been shy about work­ing with dic­ta­tors, be they Hajji Muham­mad Suhar­to of Indone­sia, Idriss Déby of Chad, Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev of Kaza­khstan, Teodoro Obiang Ngue­ma Mba­so­go of Equa­to­r­i­al Guinea, Sani Abacha of Nige­ria, José Eduar­do dos San­tos of Ango­la or Sad­dam Hus­sein of Iraq (to name but a few). 

But some­times alliances go sour. Change is often necessary.

Mem­bers of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, many of whom had worked togeth­er for decades, made ful­ly trans­par­ent their ambi­tions for Amer­i­can empire” (their word) long before tak­ing office in 2000, includ­ing the plan to invade Iraq. 

Pri­or to the March 2003 inva­sion, Iraq’s domes­tic oil indus­try was ful­ly nation­al­ized and closed to West­ern oil com­pa­nies. With­in six years, it was large­ly pri­va­tized and utter­ly dom­i­nat­ed by for­eign firms, includ­ing Exxon Mobil. Of course it’s about oil; we can’t real­ly deny that,” said Gen. John Abizaid, for­mer head of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand and Mil­i­tary Oper­a­tions in Iraq, in 2007.

Exxon Mobil joined with oth­er West­ern oil giants to have a direct hand in this long-desired out­come. The com­pa­ny par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Cheney Ener­gy Task Force, which first met just 10 days into the new admin­is­tra­tion. Its work includ­ed review­ing oper­a­tional poli­cies” toward Iraq and actions regard­ing the cap­ture of new and exist­ing oil and gas fields.” In its final report in May 2001, the task force argued that Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries should be urged to open up areas of their ener­gy sec­tors to for­eign invest­ment.” This is pre­cise­ly what was achieved in Iraq. 

Exxon Mobil met with Cheney’s staff in Jan­u­ary 2003, two months before the inva­sion, to dis­cuss plans for Iraq’s post­war indus­try, while then-CEO Lee Ray­mond had many pri­vate meet­ings with long­time friend Dick Cheney. For the next decade, for­mer and cur­rent exec­u­tives of West­ern oil com­pa­nies, includ­ing Exxon Mobil, act­ed first as admin­is­tra­tors of Iraq’s oil min­istry and then as advis­ers” to the Iraqi government.

Gary Vogler, an exec­u­tive and 21-year com­pa­ny vet­er­an, left Exxon Mobil in 2002 to help plan and lead the U.S. government’s oil agen­da in Iraq. Vogler lat­er told MSNBC that in an Octo­ber 2002 meet­ing in Hous­ton, he and oth­er mem­bers of the Ener­gy Infra­struc­ture Plan­ning Group for Iraq were told by Army Corps Lt. Col. Paul Shel­ton, Look, the mil­i­tary can get you a lot of infor­ma­tion, but you’ve got to keep in mind the cost of that infor­ma­tion … may be the lives of 19-year-old Marines and soldiers.” 

In April 2003, Vogler joined for­mer Shell Oil CEO Philip Car­roll on the ground in Iraq. The min­istry once again has a strong man at its helm,” report­ed Germany’s Der Spiegel mag­a­zine upon Vogler’s arrival at the Iraqi Oil Min­istry. By that sum­mer, Exxon Mobil had joined with sev­er­al oth­er West­ern oil com­pa­nies to artic­u­late their own goals for post-war Iraq through the Inter­na­tion­al Tax and Invest­ment Center’s (ITIC) Iraq project. The ITIC’s report, Petro­le­um in Iraq’s Future,” released in the fall of 2004, made the case for open­ing Iraq’s oil indus­try to for­eign oil com­pa­nies using Pro­duc­tion Shar­ing Agree­ments (PSAs) that grant com­pa­nies con­trol over pro­duc­tion deci­sions, the right to book reserves as their own and con­tract lengths 10 times longer than is typical.

As I detailed on CNN​.com in 2013, as the war con­tin­ued, so too did the admin­is­tra­tion and indus­try efforts to open Iraq’s oil sec­tor under their pre­ferred terms. West­ern oil com­pa­nies met with the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and ulti­mate­ly signed con­tracts to gain not all they had hoped for, but enough. In 2009, Exxon Mobil emerged as one of the war’s biggest win­ners, join­ing with PetroChi­na to sign a PSA for the super-giant West Qur­na oil field, one of the largest oil fields in the world, and lat­er acquir­ing explo­ration con­tracts in Iraq’s Kur­dis­tan region. 

While the war did have its vic­tors, it was of course dis­as­trous not only for Iraqis, but for the entire region, con­tribut­ing to the for­ma­tion of the Islam­ic State, the Syr­i­an War and today’s refugee crisis.

We know very lit­tle of Trump’s actu­al for­eign pol­i­cy agen­da oth­er than an inten­tion to put Amer­i­ca First” while turn­ing toward Rus­sia and against Iran. But per­haps we can gain some guid­ance from Trump’s words to Ander­son Coop­er in 2015 on tak­ing on the Islam­ic State: I’d bomb the hell out of the oil fields …. I’d then get Exxon, I’d then get these great oil com­pa­nies to go in­ — they would rebuild them so fast your head will spin.” A ring” of U.S. troops would then sur­round the wells, Trump said, pro­tect­ing the oil companies. 

Cli­mate risk” or cli­mate change?

Jan­u­ary will be a busy month for Rex Tiller­son. On Jan­u­ary 19, he has been called to tes­ti­fy in a fed­er­al law­suit brought by 21 young peo­ple alleg­ing that the oil and gas indus­try has sought to both pre­vent the U.S. gov­ern­ment from tak­ing action to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment from cli­mate change and lock in a fos­sil-fuel-based nation­al ener­gy sys­tem with full knowl­edge of the extreme dan­gers it pos­es. Kelsey Cas­ca­dia Rose Juliana, et al. v. Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, et al. is before the U.S. Dis­trict Court of Ore­gon and will be set for tri­al this year. 

The suit stems from a 2016 inves­ti­ga­tion by Insid­e­Cli­mate News, as do the state and fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tions into poten­tial fraud per­pe­trat­ed by Exxon Mobil against the pub­lic and its share­hold­ers regard­ing what the com­pa­ny knew about cli­mate change and when, and what it did with that infor­ma­tion. A final­ist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, the inves­ti­ga­tion uncov­ered that Exxon’s own sci­en­tists con­firmed in the 1970s that the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels harms the cli­mate. The com­pa­ny then chose to pub­licly deny the real­i­ty of cli­mate change and finance the cli­mate denial­ist move­ment (find­ings Exxon Mobil disputes).

As sec­re­tary of state, Rex Tiller­son would lead U.S. nego­ti­a­tions tack­ling cli­mate change. Tillerson’s rhetoric has led some to con­clude that this may not be such a bad thing. The facts, how­ev­er, reveal that it would be disastrous.

On the one hand, Tiller­son acknowl­edges the real­i­ty of cli­mate change and has pub­licly stat­ed his sup­port for car­bon tax­a­tion and the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment. Exxon Mobil’s lob­by­ing dis­clo­sures under Tiller­son, how­ev­er, expose a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture. In 2008 and 2009, the com­pa­ny near­ly dou­bled its already top-tier fed­er­al lob­by­ing expen­di­tures (spend­ing $29 mil­lion and $27.4 mil­lion, respec­tive­ly), out­spend­ing every oth­er cor­po­ra­tion, to suc­cess­ful­ly thwart con­gres­sion­al and White House efforts to pass mean­ing­ful cli­mate change leg­is­la­tion, dash­ing the 2009 U.N. Copen­hagen Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in the process. Exxon Mobil con­tin­ues to fund cli­mate denial­ist orga­ni­za­tions and those that are lead­ing the attacks on the Paris Agree­ment and Obama’s Clean Pow­er Plan, includ­ing the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil, the Man­hat­tan Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Research and the U.S. Cham­ber of Commerce. 

As for the company’s actu­al oper­a­tions, a 2014 study pub­lished in Cli­mat­ic Change jour­nal found that Exxon Mobil has con­tributed more glob­al green­house gas emis­sions to the atmos­phere over the last 150 years than all but one com­pa­ny (Chevron). Under Tiller­son, Exxon Mobil has fought cli­mate-relat­ed ini­tia­tives launched by share­hold­ers and reject­ed any mean­ing­ful com­mit­ment to renew­able or alter­na­tive ener­gy. As I report­ed for Rolling Stone in 2013, Since 2002, Exxon Mobil, which took in $45 bil­lion in prof­it last year alone, put a grand total of $188 mil­lion into its alter­na­tive [ener­gy] invest­ments, com­pared to the $250 mil­lion it ded­i­cat­ed to U.S. adver­tis­ing in the last two years alone.”

A close read of Tiller­son and the company’s words on the top­ic, more­over, reveal a very care­ful focus on risks” posed by cli­mate change (or by those respond­ing to it). Exxon Mobil’s annu­al report to the SEC in 2016 stat­ed, for exam­ple, Due to con­cern over the risk of cli­mate change, a num­ber of coun­tries have adopt­ed … frame­works to reduce green­house gas emis­sions.” Tillerson’s line is one of sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ty about what those risks may be, blind faith in the abil­i­ty of tech­nol­o­gy to address any such risks should they emerge, and a zeal­ous com­mit­ment to the neces­si­ty and dom­i­nance of oil and nat­ur­al gas. 

The lan­guage of risk” implies that all cli­mate effects are yet to come — such as when Tiller­son said at the company’s annu­al share­hold­er meet­ing in 2013 that cli­mate change does present seri­ous risk” yet our abil­i­ty to project with any degree of cer­tain­ty the future is con­tin­u­ing to be very lim­it­ed.” But, as of 2012, near­ly 1,000 chil­dren a day were already dying because of cli­mate change, and the esti­mat­ed annu­al death toll was 400,000 peo­ple worldwide. 

In 2008, Exxon Mobil Senior Vice Pres­i­dent J.S. Simon told Con­gress: The pur­suit of alter­na­tive fuels must not detract from the devel­op­ment of oil and gas.” To grasp the threat posed by Exxon Mobil and Rex Tiller­son, one could replace alter­na­tive fuels” with just about any phrase, word or con­cept expect­ed of a just U.S. sec­re­tary of state — be it diplo­ma­cy,” equal­i­ty,” peace,” cli­mate jus­tice” or human rights.”

Choos­ing sides

This is the purest test you can imag­ine: Either you’re pro-sci­ence or anti-sci­ence; either you stand with the peo­ple, or you stand with the pol­luters. It’s that sim­ple,” said Jamie Henn of 350​.org. He was speak­ing in advance of a protest in Cheyenne, Wyo., planned for Jan­u­ary 9, to urge Repub­li­can Sen. John Bar­ras­so to use his seat on the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee to reject Tillerson’s nom­i­na­tion. The protest is part of a month-long series of protests which include flood­ing Capi­tol Hill” with events tar­get­ing key sen­a­tors who play a big role in cab­i­net picks.

Tiller­son is sched­uled to appear in Jan­u­ary for hear­ings before the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee, where Democ­rats have promised a bruis­ing fight. They would need just one Repub­li­can to join them to block the nom­i­na­tion and Mar­co Rubio (Fla.) may be that Repub­li­can, hav­ing voiced con­cerns about Tillerson’s Russ­ian ties. If the vote goes to the full Sen­ate and Democ­rats stand unit­ed there, just three Repub­li­cans would be need­ed to block Tiller­son. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lind­sey Gra­ham (S.C.) have expressed deep reservations.

With lead­ing inter­na­tion­al human rights orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Glob­al Wit­ness and Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, con­demn­ing Tillerson’s nom­i­na­tion in no uncer­tain terms, and with Green­peace coor­di­nat­ing peti­tions and actions with numer­ous oth­er groups to block it, the fight is far from over. Tillerson’s nom­i­na­tion comes at a time of height­ened uni­ty and strength with­in the move­ment to keep fos­sil fuels in the ground, brought to nation­al atten­tion with the years-long bat­tle led by Native Amer­i­cans to halt the Dako­ta Access Pipeline. 

Ter­rence Collingsworth, the human-rights lawyer who has fought Exxon Mobil for more than 15 years in defense of the peo­ple of Aceh, wor­ries about the dam­age done sim­ply through the nom­i­na­tion of Rex Tiller­son — which, he believes, makes it clear which side the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment is now on, under the pres­i­den­cy of Don­ald Trump.

Imag­ine what will hap­pen in the future,” he says. “[Peo­ple around the world] will not feel that the U.S. will back them up in try­ing to hold these com­pa­nies account­able.” Instead, he argues, we will have — even more than today — a sweet­heart arrange­ment between for­eign gov­ern­ments and the U.S. gov­ern­ment to pro­mote the exploita­tion of nat­ur­al resources at all costs.” ν

Anto­nia Juhasz, a vis­it­ing schol­ar at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies, is the author of The Bush Agen­da: Invad­ing the World, One Econ­o­my at a Time, on which part of this arti­cle is based. She is work­ing on a new book that will make the case for the break-up of the largest Amer­i­can oil com­pa­nies. Learn more at www​.The​BushA​gen​da​.net.
Limited Time: