Environmentalists are mobilizing against President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, in the hours leading up to his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.
A collection of green and liberal organizations — including Greenpeace USA and Oil Change International — projected “Reject Rex” and similar messages on the side of the Harry S. Truman Building, the headquarters of the State Department, in Washington, D.C., on Monday night.
Naomi Ages, the climate liability campaigner for Greenpeace USA, said it’s ridiculous that the chief executive of an oil company would be selected to succeed John Kerry as secretary of state, the chief diplomat representing the interests of the American people around the world.
“He has no diplomatic experience. He has no government experience. He’s only ever worked for ExxonMobil for 41 years. So his loyalty is to ExxonMobil and his experience is extracting oil for profit and for burning carbon. Neither of those things qualify you to be the secretary of state,” Ages said in an interview with Yahoo News.
Kerry has been a climate champion and led the United States during the Paris climate negotiations in late 2015. But Tillerson ran a business that opposed the kinds of restrictions on emissions or fossil fossils that scientists say are necessary to fulfill the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
On Monday, pro-environment demonstrators gathered in all 50 states for “The Day Against Denial.” They called upon their U.S. senators reject Trump’s “most dangerous cabinet picks”: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for secretary of energy, Rep. Ryan Zinke for the Department of Interior, and Tillerson.
According to Ages, the fossil fuel industry already has too much influence over government. She said ExxonMobil is already among the biggest donors to Republicans in Congress. Organizations like the American Petroleum Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council, she continued, are already funding and “buying up” politicians to advance the oil industry’s agenda and spread misinformation about climate science.
“If Rex Tillerson is secretary of state, it’s going to be that but worse because you’ll have the policies of the oil and gas industry be the actual foreign policies of the United States, and it will be what we call ‘a marriage of oil and state,’ which we absolutely should resist.”
A quick glance at the states comprising the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — such as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — shows what oil interests tied to the government looks like. For Ages, this is not a viable model for the United States’ future.
“When your desire for oil and to burn oil directs your foreign policy, it causes problems across the board, not just in those areas,” she said. “I think you’d see that immediately in the U.S.”
Tillerson, 64, has worked for ExxonMobil his entire career and became its chairman and chief executive in 2006. He established a close relationship with the Kremlin, and Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship, one of the highest Russian honors given to foreign citizens, in 2013. Tillerson opposed economic sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
If the U.S. lifted those sanctions, ExxonMobil could proceed with a series of deals potentially worth billions that had been put on hold — including drilling in the Arctic, a red flag to environmentalists.
Many critics, including Ages, are concerned that Tillerson’s life as an oil tycoon currying favor with Putin would be in conflict with his anticipated role as the top U.S. diplomat.
“The fact that lifting Russian sanctions would directly benefit Exxon at the expense of the United States is another reason why it’s impossible that Rex Tillerson should be secretary of state,” Ages continued. “Having him confirmed would benefit Russia, Putin, Rosneft [a Russian government-owned oil company] and Exxon, but it would not benefit the American people or really the world, because of the warming consequences.”
Shortly after Trump announced Tillerson as his pick in December, Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh criticized the choice as “an epic mistake.”
“This industry has been near the center of more conflict than any other in modern time; tapping its chief oilman as the nation’s top diplomat sends the wrong message at home and abroad,” Suh said in a statement. “First occupied by Thomas Jefferson, this office must stand for our highest ideals, democratic aspirations and universal values and rights. Cutting oil deals with Vladimir Putin is a far cry from that, and Rex Tillerson should not be Secretary of State.”
Suh argues that advancing U.S. interests aboard means working to leave the next generation with a livable world — not basing foreign policy on “a business model that imperils our future.”
Michael Brune, the executive director of Sierra Club, released a similar statement lambasting Trump’s growing cabinet as a “who’s who of climate-deniers and fossil fuel hacks.” He said his environmental organization is “shocked but not surprised” that Trump would tap the leader of one of the world’s “most environmentally disastrous oil companies” to represent his administration to the world.
“Tillerson’s nomination cements the fact that clean air, clean water, and our climate are public enemy number one in Trump’s America,” Brune said. “ExxonMobil not only deliberately concealed its knowledge of climate change for decades but is responsible for one of the costliest environmental disasters in history.”
The Sierra Club called upon U.S. senators, in their duty to represent the American people, to oppose his nomination.
“At a time when the climate crisis is deepening, both the United States and the world deserve much better than having one of the planet’s top fossil fuel tycoons run U.S. foreign policy,” Brune said.
But it’s not just liberals and environmentalists who are troubled by his ties to Moscow. U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have all said this relationship is cause for concern.
Last week, when asked if he could support Tillerson, McCain, a fierce critic of Russia, replied, “Sure. There’s also a realistic scenario that pigs fly,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
Being a "friend of Vladimir" is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState – MR
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 11, 2016
“You’re going to see resistance at the state level. You’re going to see resistance at the business level,” Ages said. “You’re going to see people, state leaders, and local leaders doing everything they can to resist these policies and to resist the rolling back of these environmental protections that we enjoy.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, which holds the confirmation hearings, recently told reporters at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that he will be “overwhelmingly supported.”
According to The Hill, Corker said, “I predict that people are going to see what a distinguished this person is. I think they’re going to see how substantial this person is.”
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