Here’s What’s More Troubling About Rex Tillerson Than His Ties to Putin

As Secretary of State, Exxon’s CEO could do enormous damage to the climate.

Kate Aronoff December 13, 2016

Rex Tillerson at the Oil and Money 2015 conference in London. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

If Trump has his way, Exxon­Mo­bil CEO Rex Tiller­son will be the Unit­ed States’ next Sec­re­tary of State. Ear­ly Tues­day morn­ing, it was offi­cial­ly announced that Tiller­son, who has only ever worked at Exxon, is the president-elect’s choice to become the Unit­ed States’ diplo­mat­ic face to the world — and fourth in line for the presidency.

The New York Times story announcing that Trump would be picking Tillerson Monday night skipped mentioning climate entirely.

Like the indus­try itself, Exxon­Mo­bil is engaged in trench war­fare with the poten­tial for a liv­able plan­et; for a like­ly shot at keep­ing warm­ing under 2 degrees cel­sius, near­ly 70 per­cent of known fos­sil fuels reserves must remain under­ground. The alter­na­tive is tru­ly cat­a­stroph­ic: ram­pant food inse­cu­ri­ty, increas­ing­ly dead­ly and fre­quent storms and untold lev­els of dis­place­ment. Nev­er mind that 5 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide are already dying each year from the non-cli­mate-relat­ed effects of burn­ing fos­sil fuels.

Despite all this, much of the cov­er­age of Tillerson’s tran­si­tion into the State Depart­ment has either ignored or down­played poten­tial cli­mate impacts, instead focus­ing on his ties to Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin (whose gov­ern­ment, U.S intel­li­gence sources claim, inter­fered with this year’s elec­tion). The New York Times sto­ry announc­ing that Trump would be pick­ing Tiller­son Mon­day night skipped men­tion­ing cli­mate entirely.

His con­nec­tions to Rus­sia aren’t insignif­i­cant: Tiller­son has spent years piv­ot­ing around the State Department’s poli­cies toward Rus­sia, man­ag­ing Exxon’s deal­ings there. He was award­ed the country’s Order of Friend­ship in 2013. As Steve Coll, author of 2012’s Pri­vate Empire: Exxon­Mo­bil and Amer­i­can Pow­er, put it, Tiller­son has favored doing busi­ness in coun­tries that offer polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty, even if this sta­bil­i­ty was achieved through author­i­tar­i­an rule.” Joe Romm at ThinkProgress points out that Tillerson’s appoint­ment could also green light a $500 mil­lion plan between Russ­ian state-owned oil firm Ros­neft and Exxon to devel­op drilling oper­a­tions in the Arc­tic, a plot pre­vi­ous­ly squashed by sanc­tions. Romm also observes that if Trump and Tiller­son pull out of the Paris agree­ment, Rus­sia — the world’s fifth largest emit­ter — may also refuse to rat­i­fy it.

Are Tillerson’s ties to Rus­sia wor­ry­ing? Yes, and not least of which because they could lead to expand­ed fos­sil fuel extrac­tion and explo­ration. But arguably even more wor­ry­ing are the broad­er threats Tillerson’s appoint­ment pos­es to the cli­mate, and to a future defined by any­thing oth­er than wide­spread polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal crisis.

As Sec­re­tary of State, Tiller­son would be in charge of green-light­ing bor­der-cross­ing pipelines like Key­stone XL. He would also head the U.S. del­e­ga­tion to inter­na­tion­al cli­mate talks, tasked with nego­ti­at­ing a solu­tion to a cri­sis he has spent his career ignor­ing and exac­er­bat­ing, a cri­sis his new boss says doesn’t exist. And with Tiller­son at the helm of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy — and Bush-era neo­con John Bolton as his like­ly deputy — it could be time for anti­war pro­test­ers to dust off their no more war for oil signs,” as the lines between fed­er­al and cor­po­rate resource explo­ration become even more blurred.

Although Trump told Fox News this week­end that nobody real­ly knows” if cli­mate change is real, Exxon itself has known exact­ly that for some time. As reports from Inside Cli­mate News have shown, Exxon con­duct­ed cut­ting-edge cli­mate research start­ing in the 1970s, and is now being accused of hav­ing lied to the pub­lic over the exis­tence of man-made warm­ing. The com­pa­ny is under inves­ti­ga­tion by the Mass­a­chu­setts and New York State Attor­neys General.

Exxon­Mo­bil has also donat­ed hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to cli­mate-deny­ing think tanks like the Heart­land Insti­tute, to which it gave $115,000 in 2006, when Tiller­son took over as CEO. The com­pa­ny has giv­en EPA tran­si­tion head Myron Ebell’s Com­pet­i­tive Enter­prise Insti­tute, a lib­er­tar­i­an, anti-envi­ron­ment think tank, at least $2.1 mil­lion since 1997.

It’s iron­ic, then, that Exxon­Mo­bil in recent years has been more amenable to the idea of cli­mate pol­i­cy, at least on paper, than Trump him­self. The com­pa­ny backed the Paris Agree­ment last month and sup­port­ed — along with 5 fel­low oil majors — the idea of a glob­al car­bon tax. Many sug­gest­ed the company’s sup­port for a price on car­bon was a cyn­i­cal move, meant to set the stage for a big leg­isla­tive fight that would dis­tract from more intru­sive reg­u­la­tion. Though Tiller­son acknowl­edges that burn­ing fos­sil fuels con­tributes to ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, he down­plays its effects, say­ing sim­ply We will adapt. … It’s an engi­neer­ing prob­lem and there will be an engi­neer­ing solution.”

With Trump and Tiller­son on their way to the Oval Office, how­ev­er, it remains to be seen whether Exxon will con­tin­ue back­ing cli­mate action in any form. Tiller­son may back down from his pri­or timid sup­port for cli­mate action — and in so doing could clash with the Depart­ment of Defense, which last year out­lined warm­ing as a grave threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty. (Trump’s nom­i­nee for Sec­re­tary of Defense will be one of the few in the cab­i­net who might sup­port cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion policy.)

Before he gets into the Exec­u­tive Branch, how­ev­er, Tiller­son will have to under­go a Sen­ate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing. It’s there where cli­mate groups plan to try and stop him. We’re going to do every­thing we can to block this nom­i­na­tion,” 350​.orgs Lind­say Meiman tells In These Times. We plan to turn the con­fir­ma­tion process into a hear­ing around what Exxon knew about cli­mate change, and Rex Tillerson’s role in that,” like­ly lean­ing on allies in the Sen­ate like Bernie Sanders (D‑VT), who has worked with 350​.org on a num­ber of occasions.

In recent months, the House Sci­ence com­mit­tee sub­poe­naed 350​.org and oth­er cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions around their role in the Mass­a­chu­setts and New York State Attor­neys Gen­er­als’ inves­ti­ga­tions into the com­pa­ny, along with the AGs offices them­selves. Exxon, too, has direct­ly sub­poe­naed the group, which plans to not com­ply with orders to hand over inter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions and fundrais­ing documents.

Tillerson’s appoint­ment is still more dis­turb­ing giv­en oth­er news from the tran­si­tion team this week. A ques­tion­naire has been cir­cu­lat­ed around the Depart­ment of Ener­gy ask­ing depart­ment employ­ees if they had dab­bled in cli­mate change issues, draw­ing obvi­ous com­par­isons to McCarthy-era witch hunts. (The Depart­ment of Ener­gy has said it won’t give this infor­ma­tion.) And Okla­homa Attor­ney Gen­er­al Scott Pruitt was cho­sen to lead the EPA, like­ly because of his his­to­ry of bat­tling it in court. Pruitt has also defend­ed Exxon and crit­i­cized the New York and Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­neys Gen­er­al for inves­ti­gat­ing the cor­po­ra­tion. For­mer Texas Gov­er­nor Rick Per­ry, who sug­gest­ed 2010’s dis­as­trous BP oil spill may have been an act of god”, was tapped to head the Depart­ment of Energy.

The prob­lem with Tiller­son as Sec­re­tary of State with regards to cli­mate is big­ger than his friend­ship with Putin, or his per­son­al beliefs on whether cli­mate change is or isn’t hap­pen­ing: It’s that the fos­sil fuel indus­try can­not exist if the plan­et has any chance of a remote­ly sta­ble future. And that indus­try is now poised to occu­py what may be its most pow­er­ful posi­tion in world his­to­ry. The strat­e­gy we’ve seen from Exxon is intim­i­da­tion, delay and deceit,” Meiman says. Should he get to the White House, Tiller­son could imbue that strat­e­gy with the full author­i­ty of the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment — and put every­one else in seri­ous danger. 

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH