Tillerson Would Conduct U.S. Foreign Policy on Behalf of Oil and Natural Gas Interests
The Former ExxonMobil CEO has failed to demonstrate he would recuse himself from decisions that would affect his former employer, and he also does not grasp the urgency of climate change, says Jamie Henn and Antonia Juhasz
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday for his appointment as Secretary of State.
Now, Tillerson spent over 40 years at ExxonMobil and has never served in public office before. Controversial issues around Tillerson’s appointment include his position on climate change and on his relationship with Russia. During his opening statement Tillerson addressed Russia, an issue about which many Republicans have expressed concern.
TILLERSON: Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interest. It has invaded the Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea. It supported Syrian forces that brutally violates the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.
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KIM BROWN: Also, sporadic protests broke out during the hearing which protesters raised ExxonMobil’s record on derailing climate change negotiations.
PROTESTERS: (chanting) Hey hey, ho ho! Tillerson has got to go! Hey hey, ho ho! Tillerson has got to go!
KIM BROWN: Joining us to talk about the Tillerson hearings are Antonia Juhasz and Jamie Henn.
Antonia is a leading energy analyst. She’s also an author and investigative journalist specializing in oil. She’s also an award-winning writer. Her articles appear in Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, The Atlantic and more.
Jamie is the Communications Director and the Co-founder of 350.org, which is one of the main grassroots climate movements fighting for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Thank you, Antonia and Jamie, for joining us today.
ANTONIA JUHASZ: Thanks for having us.
JAMIE HENN: Good to be with you.
KIM BROWN: Antonia, let’s start with you because, as mentioned in my introduction, Russia has been one of the main issues during this hearing and you recently wrote an in-depth analysis for In These Times in which you take a close look at Tillerson’s connections to Russia. So tell us a little bit about these connections and how they could influence U.S. foreign policy towards Russia.
ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, absolutely. And the article is actually a broad scope piece, it’s 5,000 words that goes into many of the reasons why I believe and the title is that “Rex Tillerson Could Be America’s Most Dangerous Secretary of State.”
Look, Russia is a good example because it demonstrates Exxon’s commitment to oil above any and all other concerns. And so Tillerson negotiated deals with Russia whereby ExxonMobil now has five times more holdings in Russia than it does in the United States, and the United States are its second largest holdings. And a large chunk of those holdings are in the Russian Arctic. And this was a huge big deal for Tillerson to sign these agreements with Rosneft the Russian state-controlled oil company. And that was because Tillerson, who’d just retired from Exxon, is leaving the company in worse shape than he found it. And one of the things that he needs to prop it up is access to more oil and he got that oil in Russia. But then President Obama put in place sanctions against Russia for the incursion in Crimea and those sanctions make it impossible for Exxon to take advantage of a lot of those Russian operations.
And those operations are problematic for a lot of reasons, one of which is they’re in the Russian Arctic. And, in the United States, President Obama put in place a virtual ban on drilling in most of the U.S. Arctic, or a full ban on drilling in most of the U.S. Arctic, and the Canadians put in place a full ban on drilling in the Arctic. Because this is an area that pretty much everyone can agree, if we’re going to start keeping oil in the ground a good place to do it is in one of the most treacherous, difficult to get to environments in the world where communities that live around the Arctic are deeply dependent on the resources they get from it. But this is an area where Tillerson is eager to get drilling and to get access to resources, and to get access to those resources he’s formed a very firm partnership with the Russians. And, of course, as you say, many Republicans, in particular, have extreme problems with that relationship.
KIM BROWN: Jamie, today Tillerson deflected any concerns that he would go after anyone currently working for the State Department that had been involved in climate change or gender equity programs and discussions. But talk about the case against Exxon, on their previous science-based knowledge of the effects of their oil and gas activities on extreme climate change and what role Tillerson played.
JAMIE HENN: Sure. Well, it’s good to see Senator Tim Kaine and others today really begin to grill Rex Tillerson about Exxon’s history of climate denial. Last year, reports came out that Exxon scientists knew about climate change since the 1970s, but then CEOs at the company went on to cover up the truth and fund front groups that were spreading misinformation. And that practice was really in place during the 1990s but it continued under Tillerson.
Tillerson has said some things about climate change, saying he acknowledges the threat but continued to fund front groups like The American Petroleum Institute, ALEC and others who are spreading misinformation. When he was grilled on that, Tillerson basically said, “I can’t talk about it. I refuse to because I no longer work at ExxonMobil.”
This is a guy whose only job in his adult life has been working at Exxon. He was there for over 41 years. He was there as of only a couple of weeks ago. For him to not talk about the company’s track record of spreading misinformation, the role that it played in delaying climate change and the role that it continues to play in blocking progress is really problematic.
So I think that now, Rex, yes, he said that climate change is real. He’s still spreading the same misinformation and doubt and delay that Exxon has been doing for years and it’s another reason why he’s not qualified to be Secretary of State.
KIM BROWN: Antonia, Rex Tillerson or T-Rex as his friends call him, is reportedly worth over $400 million. So why do you think he wants the job of Secretary of State? It really doesn’t pay as good as CEO.
ANTONIA JUHASZ: It’s an excellent question that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to answer. He is right now ranked as one of the most powerful men in the world by Forbes. And he ranks significantly higher on that list than does President Obama, and our current Secretary of State doesn’t even appear on the list. So why would he want this job?
One is the problem that I posed at the beginning which is, as Jamie said, Rex Tillerson has worked at ExxonMobil his entire adult life, as have most executives there. The company is often referred to by those who work there as “Mother Exxon”. They have a tight connection to this company, it’s described often by executives of other companies as a cult. It’s very insular and they have a deep belief in the success of Exxon and their ties to it.
And when Tillerson was being grilled in this hearing, by the way, he had a very difficult time deviating when asked about things. For example, “Is there any country in the world you wouldn’t work with because of its human rights record, when you were CEO of Exxon?” The only answers he could give were business-based answers. Because ExxonMobil has worked with just about every dictator in the world and still does.
But he’s very tied to this company, and I think one of the answers to your question is that he faced force retirement this year. He turns 65 in March, he was going to have to retire in March, instead he retired in January. Also, he has business he wants to still see accomplished. He doesn’t want to leave Exxon, I believe, in worse shape than when he found it, which is where it is right now. He has financial ties to the company. They worked out a deal where he wouldn’t be able to invest in Exxon for 10 years. But 10 years in the life of an oil company is a short amount of time. So that means that in 10 years he’s fully allowed to put his wealth back into Exxon. And, as you say, he’s getting this big $180 million payout.
The Bush administration, which Exxon has deep ties to, has come out in full force in support of Rex Tillerson. George Bush, himself, contacted Senator Corker, who’s the head of the Confirmation Committee. We’ve had Dick Cheney, we’ve had Condoleeza Rice, we’ve had Gates, we’ve had Hadley — they’ve all come out and said, “Tillerson needs this job.” That’s deeply worrying. And what it says to me is that the Republican establishment and, in particular, the Republican oil establishment, doesn’t trust Donald Trump.
And I think that Rex Tillerson is going to be their man in charge. And that he’ll be there to make sure that Trump does what needs to be done from this perspective. And we’ve seen what the combination of Bush administration plus oil interests, or Bush administration and oil interests, has done to the world and in the world. And, of course, the Iraq War, which we’re still suffering the consequences of, and of which ExxonMobil was one of the biggest victors, is one of those clear outcomes. The Bush administration had Iran next in its sights, as does the Trump administration — and that makes me deeply concerned about what the agenda of Rex Tillerson will be if he gets confirmed as Secretary of State.
KIM BROWN: Jamie, under ethics rules, he will probably have divest of his millions of dollars of stock in ExxonMobil. So do you think there will still be a conflict of interest with the oil lobby interest if he gets the job?
JAMIE HENN: Yeah, most definitely. I will say when we started the fossil fuel divestment campaign, we never quite pictured the CEO of ExxonMobil divesting from his own company. But, obviously, it doesn’t actually help us in any way.
It was interesting at the hearing, when Tillerson was pushed this morning about whether or not after a year, where he’s prevented from directly being in contact with Exxon and collaborating with them in any way, if he’d continue to separate that and recuse himself from decisions that affect ExxonMobil, he refused to say so. And, in a way, it would be impossible for him to do so. Exxon has tentacles all over the world, as Antonia said, they’re wrapped up in foreign policy from war in the Middle East to the work that they’ve done in Africa to human rights violations in Indonesia — this is a company that operates around the world often, working with brutal dictatorships to get at their resources.
So the idea that the Secretary of State could somehow separate that agenda from the agenda of this company is just unbelievable — especially when you take into account Tillerson’s long history at ExxonMobil, and as Antonia said, the way that the company infuses this ideology of the way that the world should work.
You know, Steve Cole’s long book on Exxon, the definitive history of the company was called “Private Empire” for a reason. This is a company that sees itself as above the law. Their previous CEO Lee Raymond(?) said very explicitly that they don’t see themselves as an American company, but they see themselves as representing the interest of ExxonMobil and ExxonMobil alone. So there’s no evidence that Tillerson would do anything else when he was Secretary of State. And when it comes to the climate that’s incredibly damaging.
He had a chance today to try and assure Democratic senators, to try and assure the public that some of the rhetoric that Exxon has put out on climate change, saying it’s a threat, saying action needs to take place, wasn’t just icing on the cake or window dressing or greenwash, but was something serious that the company was taking into account. He did the opposite. He basically said, “My views are different than ExxonMobil’s. I have some concerns but I’m not sure if human activity is causing climate change. I don’t know what the impacts are going to be.” If anything, he went more back into climate denial than the company had been previously talking about.
So this is all incredibly concerning and, again, I think it reinforces the role that Exxon has played for a long time, which is continuing to spread misinformation, continuing to sow doubt in the public. And that’s especially egregious considering how long they’ve known about climate change and how long they’ve been very clear that their product is at the root of this crisis, just like cigarettes were causing cancer. This is going to come back and have serious consequences this company in the future if Senators can continue to do their job and really push Tillerson the rest of today and, hopefully into the future, on the connections between what Exxon knew about climate change and the way that they continue to lie to the American people about the crisis.
KIM BROWN: So, Jamie, in the Tillerson hearing today, on Wednesday, he said that he supported a carbon tax as a solution to climate change. But it was about his role if he were to get the job as Secretary of State. So does this surprise you? And what would you have liked the Senators to have asked him vis-à-vis the legal case against Exxon led by the Attorney General from New York State, Eric Schneiderman, over what Exxon knew and whether it properly disclosed the risk of climate change to shareholders and investors and to the public at large?
JAMIE HENN: Well, I think the Senate needs to do a much better job of really grilling Tillerson and the company. I mean, we should get the new CEO of ExxonMobil in front of a senate committee. We’ve long said that Exxon and Rex Tillerson, in particular, deserve a federal investigation, not a congressional appointment or a cabinet appointment.
So, no, we need to see much more of an interrogation of this company and what’s taking place. That said, when it comes to the carbon price and Exxon’s supposed leadership on this issue, it’s important to actually look at the record. Exxon only came out in favor of a carbon price when the Cap and Trade Bill looked like it was going to move through the Senate during Obama’s first term. They did so, in order to get a seat at the table so that they could weaken the Cap and Trade legislation. And, in fact, they put forward a carbon price very explicitly as a contrast to Cap and Trade to help undermine the potential of that legislation to move forward.
As Antonio’s written about and pointed out well, ExxonMobil’s core business right now is, especially in the United States, natural gas, fracking and light crude that’s they’ve always been in. And a very low price on carbon would actually help ExxonMobil by driving coal out of the market, replacing it with natural gas, but not making a price on carbon too high so that Exxon’s business actually suffered.
So as usual, this is a plan to help ExxonMobil, it is not a serious plan to address climate change. And that’s the real worry with someone like Tillerson who admits climate change is real, but then proposes these false solutions that would actually only get us further into the crisis.
KIM BROWN: Antonia, Hillary Clinton came under fire for promoting fracking abroad while she was Secretary of State under President Barack Obama and helping to push through Mexican offshore oil drilling opening it up for U.S. drilling companies. So how do you think his role as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, that is, will affect U.S. interests at home and abroad and will it just be more of the same?
ANTONIA JUHASZ: I’m unable to articulate the difference between Rex Tillerson and Hillary Clinton. So, you know, Clinton did have ties with the oil industry and did perpetuate a fracking model and did work to see fracking open up in countries abroad. Rex Tillerson’s only mindset is oil and natural gas. And there is a quote that I have in my article from a vice-president at ExxonMobil in 2008 under Tillerson, and he said in a hearing before Congress about the pursuit of alternative energy, he said, “The pursuit of alternative energy should not, in any way, dissuade from or interrupt or disrupt the pursuit of oil and gas.” And I think that you can basically fill in any concept that we would expect of a just Secretary of State and fill in alternative energy with that phrase. So the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of human rights, the pursuit of equality — and oil and gas really just have to take precedent.
And I think that that is the mindset of Rex Tillerson, and I think in the questions during the hearing this also came out. I think he was asked, for example, about sanctions. And the first thing he had to say about sanctions was, “Well, sanctions are bad for U.S. business.” And I believe it was Senator Menendez who was doing the questioning and he said, “Well, actually, the sanctions, the objective is a foreign policy objective, a human rights objective.” And he said, “Well, you know, it may have those other objectives,” Tillerson said, “But it does hurt U.S. business.” And his framework and his answer to almost every single question was through the eyes of a CEO, which is who he is and what he had been doing until 11 days ago. And the CEO of the world’s largest oil company and the oldest major oil company, as well, because, of course, ExxonMobil is the direct descendant and largest descendant of Standard Oil.
And I interviewed, in this article, a human rights lawyer who is the lawyer who’s been fighting a case in which Rex Tillerson is named. And Tillerson is named in this case which alleges that the Indonesian military turned into private security under the employ of ExxonMobil engaged in serious human rights abuses including murder, including torture, including sexual assault and that this took place from 2000 to 2004. And the complaint names Rex Tillerson in his role as President of ExxonMobil within that suit. And I don’t know what’s going to happen with that case or what Rex Tillerson may or may not be charged with.
I do think the fact that the company, however, does not argue that the human rights abuses did not occur; rather argues that the company should not be liable for them. And the fact that ExxonMobil under Tillerson continues to work with Angola and Equatorial Guinea, all around the world, shows us that there is one objective — and that is oil and natural gas. And that that objective is deeply problematic right now for a number of reasons, just one of which is that most scientists in the world agree that at least 80% of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground if we’re going to avert the worst of climate catastrophe.
And Rex Tillerson, when he talks about climate change, uses very particular language. He talks about risk — the risks of climate change. And that puts climate change as a problem into the future. It ignores the fact that some 400,000 people a year are already estimated to be dying right now because of climate change. So if his full agenda — and one that I believe he thinks is certainly good for business, and maybe even good for the United States — is the pursuit of oil and gas that that will make the deals that Hillary Clinton made look like small change when you add, not only that oil and natural gas will be the full agenda of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, but then he’ll be the Secretary of State for Donald Trump’s presidency, those two things in combination… oh, and with Bolton as his Undersecretary of State, that should make us all very concerned.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. That’s Antonia Juhasz a leading energy analyst, also investigative journalist and author. We’ve also been joined with Jamie Henn, Communications Director and Co-Founder of 350.org. We’ve been discussing the Senate Confirmation Hearings of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and his bid to be confirmed as the next Secretary of State under President-elect Donald Trump. Thank you both for joining us.
ANTONIA JUHASZ: Thank you.
JAMIE HENN: Thanks a lot.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.