Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson is, strangely, the most pro-climate Trump nominee


The nomination of ExxonMobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state is being roundly pilloried by environmentalists, who see him as the human embodiment of a barrel of crude oil. 

"Picking Rex Tillerson as for secretary of state makes Big Oil the face of foreign policy and a mockery of U.S. climate leadership," Environment America’s executive director Margie Alt said in a statement. 

Yet compared to other Trump cabinet nominees, such as climate deniers Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, who, if confirmed, would lead the EPA and Energy Department, respectively, Tillerson almost seems like a liberal on the climate issue. 

SEE ALSO: Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, climate archvillain, to be named secretary of state

Of course, he is not, and Exxon is currently under investigation by the attorneys general of Massachusetts, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands for researching climate change in the 1970s and then deliberately misleading investors and the public about its connections to fossil fuel burning. The investigations and activism surrounding it are known by the hashtag #ExxonKnew. 

However, simply because of the extreme views at the top of other agencies, it's possible that Tillerson would be a moderating voice within the Trump cabinet on climate change, assuming he's confirmed.

Exxon Mobil's Billings Refinery in Billings, Mont. in 2016.
Exxon Mobil's Billings Refinery in Billings, Mont. in 2016.

Image: Matthew Brown/AP

A search through the company's archive of public speeches and reading of Steve Coll's in-depth account of Exxon's history, "Private Empire," shows that Tillerson is leading a company that is increasingly operating in a political environment that favors taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

That's why as CEO, Tillerson moved to have the company acknowledge the central role that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions play in global warming, and advocated for a revenue neutral carbon tax as the most economically elegant solution to putting a price on carbon emissions. 

During a speech before an oil and gas conference in London in October, for example, Tillerson said:

Under Tillerson's leadership, Exxon has favored research into biofuels and carbon capture and storage technologies, both of which would still allow oil and natural gas to be burned far into the future despite global warming risks. 

"At ExxonMobil, we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action," Tillerson said at a conference in Washington in May.

Exxon has also, at least publicly, been supportive of the Paris Climate Agreement that entered into force on Nov. 4. Trump has promised to back out of that agreement, but Tillerson may seek to convince him otherwise. 

If Exxon, the most recalcitrant oil company out there when it comes to favoring climate change action, is in favor of a climate treaty, shouldn't Trump be, too?

Tillerson has often talked about the primary goal of alleviating energy poverty, which is another way of saying that the number one priority is to expand access to electricity. 

Exxon sees more efficient oil and natural gas plants as the easiest way of doing that, whereas climate activists, technology leaders and many world leaders, like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been pushing renewables as a way to leapfrog developing countries over dirtier technologies. 

"Energy demand and economic opportunity are inextricably linked. Expanding energy supplies safely and responsibly have and will continue to be essential to improving living standards around the world," Tillerson told the London audience.

Still, there are many reasons to question Tillerson’s climate change bona fides. First, some of the climate deniers that his company funded are now involved in the Trump administration’s transition at the EPA, Energy Department and other parts of the bureaucracy. Second, Exxon never joined with other oil and gas companies in an open letter, which was sent during the Paris negotiations, favoring a global carbon price and the 2-degree limit.

Also, Exxon’s view that the priority should be placed on increasing access to energy, through fossil fuels, runs up against that of the World Bank and other institutions, which place much more emphasis on steering clear of climate risks that could set back development.

He may talk the talk sometimes, but...

Environmentalists see Tillerson's nomination as a staggering development considering Exxon's reputation as one of the largest funders of an organized climate science disinformation campaign that in some ways still goes on today.

Friends of the Earth U.S. president Erich Pica pointed this out in his response to the nomination.

"For decades ExxonMobil covered up its knowledge of the link between fossil fuels and climate change, while funding climate denial groups," he said in a statement.

"More recently, it has continued to cynically fund climate denial and used its trade organization the American Petroleum Institute to undermine climate initiatives like the Clean Power Plan, even as it publicly called for a revenue-neutral carbon tax to solve climate change."

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks at a new conference in New York. Schneiderman is one of the attorneys general suing Exxon over its climate denial activities.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks at a new conference in New York. Schneiderman is one of the attorneys general suing Exxon over its climate denial activities.

Image: AP

The company has refused to incorporate a planning scenario into its business planning in which the global community decides to dramatically cut carbon emissions in order to meet a 2-degree Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, temperature target, which leaders agreed to in Paris last year, despite mounting shareholder support for such a climate change stress test. 

Instead, the company has poured millions into tar sands oil fields in Alberta, which contain some of the dirtiest, most greenhouse gas intensive oil on the planet.

Unlike some of their competitors, such as Shell and Total, Exxon's leaders have continued to envision a future in which its oil and gas reserves, which stretch from Siberia to Africa and the Gulf of Mexico, can all be drilled and burned for energy despite the climate change consequences. 

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