Trump's Potential Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson Is A Titan In The Oil Industry

Dec 12, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 6:47 am
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Donald Trump tweeted this evening that he'll be naming his choice for secretary of state tomorrow morning. Several news outlets are reporting that the president-elect will nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. NPR has not confirmed that. Over the weekend, Donald Trump praised Tillerson but would not confirm the choice. Tillerson is a giant in the business world with ties to Russia. NPR's Jeff Brady has more on the oil and gas executive.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Rex Tillerson is a Texas man. He was born in the state and has lived much of his life there. He brags about being an Eagle Scout in this Boy Scouts of America video.

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REX TILLERSON: I have a lot of terrific memories associated with scouting. Probably most of the high points of my growing up years are associated with my scouting activities.

BRADY: Tillerson is a University of Texas at Austin graduate where he studied civil engineering before joining Exxon in 1975. He rose through the ranks and became chairman and CEO in 2006. Next March, he reaches ExxonMobil's mandatory retirement age of 65.

Even those who are fans of Tillerson's tenure at ExxonMobil are surprised he's being considered for secretary of state. Dennis McCuistion directs the Institute for Excellence in Corporate Governance at the University of Texas at Dallas. McCuistion says Tillerson does have diplomatic experience as head of a multinational oil company.

DENNIS MCCUISTION: He's sort of a diplomat for energy. I mean I could see him as a slam-dunk for energy secretary (laughter) as an example, you know, because he is the resident expert.

BRADY: McCuistion says no matter how skilled a diplomat Tillerson might be, there are appearances to consider. For example, the oil executive has had extensive dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A quick Internet search, and you'll find plenty of pictures of the two shaking hands and laughing together.

ExxonMobil has business dealings in Russia worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Journalist Steve Coll wrote a book about ExxonMobil. He told Michel Martin on WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED that Tillerson's business career raises big questions.

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STEVE COLL: He spent all of his life negotiating on behalf of Exxon's interests, which are not always the same as the interests of the United States and the countries where he's worked. So it would be a very unusual transition to the State Department.

BRADY: Climate change will be a big issue for the next secretary of state. Some environmental activists say Tillerson is no friend to the planet. They point to legal battles over how much Exxon knew about climate change in the past even as the company downplayed the threat publicly. Speaking at a Council of Foreign Relations event in 2012, Tillerson said he thinks the effects of climate change are manageable.

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TILLERSON: It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don't - the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.

BRADY: That last comment was aimed at those environmental activists who argued the world should stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible. Tillerson went on to say that while climate change has to be addressed, he believes poverty is an even more important problem.

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TILLERSON: There are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world. They need electricity. They need electricity they can count on, that they can afford. They need fuel to cook their food on that's not animal dung.

BRADY: If President-elect Trump nominates Tillerson for secretary of state, he's likely to face a grilling during confirmation hearings. Already a few GOP senators have expressed serious concerns. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.