Petropolitics: Do Oil And Diplomacy Mix?

Does Mr. Tillerson think that a global approach to governance is actually the best way to put America first?

President-Elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State have raised questions about Mr. Tillerson’s ties to Russia. As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Mr. Tillerson has been directly involved in a number of oil deals with Russia, but members of Congress should use the time between now and confirmation hearings to prepare questions for Mr. Tillerson on a broader set of issues. Russia is an important part of the equation, but there is much more to the story. Here are some important questions Congress should pose to Mr. Tillerson at his confirmation hearings.

First, should the United States pursue energy independence or energy security? According to Steve Coll, author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Mr. Tillerson strongly believes the United States should flat out abandon the idea of energy independence and settle instead for energy security. Mr. Coll writes “If Tillerson and his Management Committee could write their own foreign and energy policy for the United States, it would involve, first, an acceptance of the interconnectedness of global oil markets— and an end to fantasies about national ‘independence.*’”

As Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson would be in an ideal position to write his companies own foreign policy. ExxonMobil is the only employer Mr. Tillerson has ever worked for, and he’s been with them for forty-one years. A follow-up question is how can the American people be sure as Secretary of State he’ll influence foreign policy for the best interests of the United States and not for ExxonMobil? Will he vigorously support energy independence as Secretary of State if that is the will of the American people even if the policy of energy independence hurts ExxonMobil?

Second, Congress should ask Mr. Tillerson based on his experience with Russian oil companies and the Russian government if he thinks Russia is a nation governed by the rule of law or whether it is ruled by a handful of oligarchs? During his tenure as CEO ExxonMobil has been cautious on undertaking deals with Russian state-owned oil companies due to uncertainties about Russia’s legal system. If the United States and Russia are to begin a new era of improved relations and even partnership, then the American people have a right to know just who their new partners are, and as our top diplomat it would be Mr. Tillerson’s job to provide informed answers.

Third, according to ExxonMobil’s own research, most of the unrecovered oil and natural gas reserves around the world are either in remote areas such as the arctic or in unstable regions already prone to conflict. Competition for energy resources among great power nations has the potential to trigger new armed conflicts and to exacerbate existing ones. Mr. Tillerson is an expert on global energy, but how would he use that expertise and the power of being America’s top diplomat to prevent new wars from breaking out among major powers like Russia and the United States? As Secretary of State will Mr. Tillerson get behind an international push for more stringent environmental regulations or champion far looser ones?

Finally, Congress should ask Mr. Tillerson how much if any of our national sovereignty Americans should be willing to give up to international decision making bodies. ExxonMobil and most other global oil companies have a long track record of inking deals with host governments which place contract negotiations at the discretion of international organizations instead of national governments. That gives an advantage squarely to the oil companies by allowing them by-pass host country laws and regulations in favor of international standards. Mr. Tillerson should explain how such an approach is consistent with the President-Elect Trump’s stated “America First” philosophy of governance. Or does Mr. Tillerson think that a global approach to governance is actually the best way to put America first?

The confirmation hearings and potentially the tenure of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State will be a test of whether or not diplomacy and oil can be mixed, and whether or not they should be mixed. He certainly has the international and leadership experience to do the job, but he needs to provide Congress and the American people with answers to the questions above first.

*Coll, Steve. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (pp. 440-441). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.