The danger of making Exxon chief Trump's secretary of state

Rex Tillerson in 60 seconds
Rex Tillerson in 60 seconds

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Story highlights

  • Tyson Slocum: Trump pick of ExxonMobil CEO for secretary of state boosts man with an agenda at odds with US interests
  • He says on foreign policy, environment and more, Tillerson has repeatedly put shareholders' profit ahead of America

Tyson Slocum is energy program director at Public Citizen. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A majority of Americans believe the economy is rigged in favor of big corporations, according to a recent national poll. President-elect Donald Trump's plan to elevate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to a position as secretary of state, America's chief diplomat, would formally validate the suspicion that a corporate takeover of our national interest is underway.

Tyson Slocum
Under Tillerson's direction, Exxon has been an influential kingmaker in geopolitics, often pursuing an agenda, from Russia to Iraq, that, according to reporting by Steve Coll and others, has prioritized shareholders but directly conflicted with the best interests of America.
The volume of Tillerson's personal and financial conflicts of interest from his 40 years at Exxon should themselves serve as a disqualification: How can the ExxonMobil boss separate his array of deals with dictators, strongmen and guerrilla insurgents from his State Department duties?
Indeed, proponents of the Tillerson pick can only reference a single employer from his resume: his 40+ year ExxonMobil career.
Even if Tillerson can somehow divest his 2.5 million ExxonMobil shares and blind trust his expected golden parachute and pension, he cannot dissociate himself from Exxon's interests: working at the company is all he has known.
The nature of multinational "extractive" industries, like oil and gas, often entails controversial financial relationships with often-undemocratic and nontransparent regimes, many of which, such as Russia, pursue agendas directly at odds with those of the United States, making the industry unique.
Congress recognized the inherent corruptive relationship between oil corporations and foreign governments when it required oil and gas companies to disclose such payments as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
Giuliani reacts to Tillerson selection
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Exxon's trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, opposed that transparency rule, arguing it unfairly held US oil companies to a higher standard than state-owned oil companies. You might have thought that part of America's greatness comes from leading by example: The United States sets the moral bar for the rest of the world to follow. But Exxon and its trade association disagree: When it comes to transparency, they prefer a race to the bottom.
Tillerson has openly challenged established US foreign policy in order to prioritize his company's financial interests. He publicly questioned the effectiveness of America imposing sanctions against our enemies, because it would harm his business investments. This, despite generations of bipartisan support for using sanctions as a backbone policy with which to confront and corner America's enemies.
Coll, the author of "Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power," described how Tillerson defied the US government by negotiating an oil deal with the Kurdish Regional Government that undermined existing oil agreements with Iraq's central government in Baghdad, sparking an international furor between the United States and Iraq.
Sources: Trump picks Tillerson
Sources: Trump picks Tillerson

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Sources: Trump picks Tillerson 02:18
In short, Tillerson has used Exxon and its nearly $400 billion market capitalization as his own global fiefdom.
We may like to imagine that big American corporations work in benevolent common cause with citizens (it was once an American axiom: "What's good for General Motors is good for America"), but it is clear that what is good for Exxon is not necessarily good for America.
While some 97% of America's climate scientists understand that evidence unequivocally shows Earth's temperatures rising due to the burning of oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels, under Tillerson's leadership, ExxonMobil funded a national campaign to intentionally sow confusion where none should exist by baselessly attacking the science. Tillerson may now say his company backs "serious action" to combat climate change, but his actions tell a different story.
But one doesn't need to think globally to get a feel for Exxon's impact in a community. Residents of Mayflower, Arkansas, were shocked when, in 2013, more than 200,000 gallons of heavy crude oil saturated their small town. That's because most residents, including some city officials, had no idea Exxon operated the Pegasus pipeline right under their city.
Exxon was forced to pay a $2.6 million fine for numerous safety violations. The Arkansas disaster came just two years after another Exxon pipeline burst under the Yellowstone River in Montana, where the company paid a $1.6 million fine and agreed to a separate $12 million settlement. It seems Exxon just doesn't learn its lessons.
But the American people can.
Tillerson's ExxonMobil track record is at odds with what's best for the country. We can and must do better for our top diplomatic post.