Who is Rex Tillerson? Trump's Egregious Choice for Secretary of State

December 11, 2016 | 5:16 pm
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

When the news broke that President-elect Donald Trump was considering nominating ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, I refused to dignify the rumor with a response. The prospect of the leader of the nation’s largest fossil fuel company becoming our top diplomat was too preposterous—not just because ExxonMobil sells a product that is causing global warming—but because the company knew decades ago that its product was dangerously interfering with the climate and chose to mislead the public rather than be part of the solution.

rex-tillersonExxonMobil Chair and CEO Rex Tillerson is reportedly the leading contender to be nominated as secretary of state by President-elect Donald Trump.Making Tillerson our nation’s top diplomat would be pernicious—particularly in terms of US and global commitments to tackle climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy. And amid strong indications that Tillerson will be nominated, resistance is in order.

There are numerous reasons Tillerson would be an inappropriate and deeply troubling choice for the secretary of state post:

  • His close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs, particularly in light of concerns about Russian tampering in the US election process.
  • His deep vested interest in the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry through his 40-year employment history and his extensive stock holdings with ExxonMobil. Tillerson’s nomination would be yet another indication of President-elect Trump’s cavalier attitude about conflicts of interest.
  • His lack of diplomacy or tact. Year after year at ExxonMobil’s annual meetings, Tillerson has been belligerent with shareholders and their designated proxies who have raised concerns about the company’s failure to take responsibility for climate change.

But in my role as the manager of UCS’s campaign to hold the fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in climate change, perhaps the most outrageous aspect of this nomination is Tillerson’s record of downplaying and disparaging climate science and attacking those who advocate climate action. As UCS President Ken Kimmell said in a statement on the nomination, it’s like nominating a tobacco CEO as surgeon general.

Downplaying and disparaging climate science

As I noted in a recent blog, ExxonMobil currently scores at the bottom of the scale—“egregious”—on nearly every metric of involvement with climate disinformation. And Tillerson, who rose through the ranks over 40 years, has been at the helm of ExxonMobil since 2006.

The company makes a clear statement acknowledging climate science and the risks of climate change on its website, and at a recent oil industry conference Tillerson commented that “the risks of climate change are real and require serious action.” Yet Tillerson has repeatedly misrepresented basic climate science in public statements by casting doubt on the accuracy and competency of climate models. At ExxonMobil’s annual meeting in 2015, Tillerson argued that the world should wait to improve its understanding of climate science before taking action, stating, “so that’s why we have always posed this question of what if everything we do, it turns out our models were really lousy and we achieved all our objectives, but it turned out the planet behaved differently because the models just weren’t good enough to predict?” At the annual meeting in 2016, Tillerson repeated his assertion that climate models are not accurate.

Tillerson should know that the largest source of uncertainty in climate models is that associated with human activities, and much of the range in climate models’ projections has to do with assumptions about society’s energy use—including the projections about the future share of our energy needs to be filled by fossil fuels. And under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil has sought to keep fossil fuels’ future share high.

At the same annual meeting, Tillerson claimed that “there is no space between us and the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], we see the science the same way.” Yet Tillerson dismisses IPCC findings that climate risks increase dramatically with rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions and that substantial near-term emissions reductions can help us avoid many harmful consequences. Tillerson argues that uncertainties over specific model projections justify inaction.

Last month, ExxonMobil issued a statement acknowledging the ambitious goals of the international climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015. Yet the company stopped short of saying it agreed with or would work toward these goals, and ExxonMobil maintains a business model that plans for emissions—and resulting temperature increases—that are far in excess of these international climate goals.

Threatening the survival and sovereignty of nations

Among investor- and state-owned fossil fuel companies, ExxonMobil trails only Chevron in terms of the historic heat-trapping emissions that can be traced to its products. ExxonMobil’s fossil fuel-dependent business model, its disinformation on climate science, and its efforts to block and delay climate policy threaten the very survival of some nations. For a small island nation like Kiribati, its culture and sovereignty are at stake due to sea level rise associated with climate change. Long-term impacts of climate change are leaving Ethiopia and other African countries vulnerable to devastating drought and food insecurity.

What message would it send to these countries to put Tillerson in charge of U.S. foreign policy?

Defying accountability

Tillerson has led ExxonMobil during a period when the attorneys general of at least two states have launched investigations into whether the company violated any laws by deceiving shareholders and the public about the climate risks and impacts of its products. The company has turned logic on its head and employed scorched-earth legal tactics in attempting to thwart these investigations. While claiming First Amendment protection for its role in spreading climate disinformation, ExxonMobil served UCS with a subpoena that violates our First Amendment rights to associate freely and petition our government. And in a particularly Orwellian move, following a virtually unprecedented ruling by a judge in a Texas federal court, the company is attempting to investigate Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey over her investigation of ExxonMobil.

How far our federal government has fallen in protecting consumers and shareholder against fraudulent business practices since the 2006 ruling by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler that tobacco companies had “engaged in and executed—and continue to engage in and execute—a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes, in violation of RICO [the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act].”

President-elect Trump’s nominations to date signal that fraud and corruption will go unpunished, conflicts of interest will be ignored, and wealth and privilege will be further concentrated under his administration. (For more evidence of the President-elect’s proposed governance by the oil industry, read my colleague Angela Anderson’s blog “The First Three Reasons Senators Should Oppose Scott Pruitt for EPA.”)

Rex Tillerson has made a handsome living expanding and defending ExxonMobil’s production of fossil fuels even after the company’s own scientists sounded the alarm about climate change. The U.S. and other countries are already paying a high price for ExxonMobil’s decades of deception and delay tactics—in increased storm surge and tides from rising seas, increased heat-related health hazards, drought, wildfires, and more. Tillerson has repeatedly put corporate profit before the health and safety of Americans and people across the globe. If President-elect Trump puts him forward as secretary of state, the Senate should not confirm his nomination.