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Why Environmentalists Should Embrace Oil Company Engineer for Secretary of State

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson is taking heat from environmentalists primarily because he is the outgoing CEO of ExxonMobil. But those alarmed by Tillerson’s fossil industry ties must consider that Tillerson holds what many environmentalists will consider the most forward-looking public position on climate change action of all Trump’s potential cabinet members.


Further, Tillerson has a decade of demonstrated competence as chief executive of a massive, international operation. Geopolitics and oil are inseparable. To rise from engineer to CEO of the multinational oil major ExxonMobil, one must excel at both. On policy and management fronts, Tillerson has the skills required to make the State Department “great again.”

Tillerson has acknowledged on multiple occasions his view that human industrial emissions contribute to a warming planet and pose a risk of environmental harm serious enough to warrant social intervention. Tillerson publicly advocates for free market solutions to carbon reduction, including a price on carbon and elimination of regulations and subsidies that hamper innovation in the energy sector. Under his leadership, ExxonMobil shadow prices carbon as an ordinary matter of business. It is difficult to think of a conservative leader in the last decade whose public position on carbon is more consistent, action-oriented, and free-market solution driven than that of Rex Tillerson.

For environmentalists concerned that President Trump’s administration will end America’s multilateral collaboration on climate change action, Tlllerson’s public statements as CEO of ExxonMobil are supportive of the Paris Accord. He recently assured Democratic United States Senator Ben Cardin that he supports an international climate agreement. Tillerson is poised to become the Trump administration’s chief internal advocate for global climate action. On this basis alone, environmentalists ought to give Tillerson a chance as a foreign policy leader sympathetic to their concerns.


Environmentalist critics decrying Tillerson’s 2012 statement, “[Climate change] is an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions,” should consider that he is correct. The engineering behind the fossil fuel powered combustion engine emits carbon. And who but engineers are innovating the new technologies needed to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously providing the cheap energy modern life demands?

A number of these engineers work for Tillerson at ExxonMobil, on projects ranging from algae derived bio-fuels to a molten salt carbonate fuel cell technology for carbon capture and sequestration. “I am confident that with the right focus, continued innovation and a commitment to strong partnerships, we can successfully meet the challenges we face now and in the future,” he told an audience last November in a speech that recognizes climate change as an energy challenge innovation can solve.

Tillerson has experience operating on the world stage, or, as incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus notes, Tillerson is “a diplomat who happens to be able to drill oil.” That Tillerson’s experience derives from working at ExxonMobil should recommend him for the job instead of disqualify him. The oil company he runs has the worldwide footprint of a major nation state: Operations on six continents in over 200 nations, annual revenues that eclipse many national economies, and negotiated agreements with numerous governments of varying political forms.


Tillerson’s management track record includes navigating his company through a period of complicated, economically fraught global change for the hydrocarbon industry. Challenges he led his 70,000 employees through include the global financial crisis, multiple armed conflicts disruptive to oil markets, and the advent of the age of hydraulic fracturing, which collapsed oil prices and reshuffled the globe’s energy mix along with oil’s geopolitical deck.

Tillerson has the foreign affairs and managerial experience a Secretary of State needs to successfully serve America. Upon the United States Senate’s confirmation, Tillerson will also become the most senior climate action advocate in the Trump administration. Environmentalists opposing Tillerson’s nomination appear to think acknowledging climate change as an environmental risk and posing a free market solution is not enough from a leader in a Republican administration. These environmentalists should ask themselves if they want a political wedge issue, or to address the environmental problem they claim is desperately urgent – because they cannot justifiably oppose Tillerson’s nomination on either climate policy or competence grounds.


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