Is the State Department doomed under Tillerson?

by Kate DeAngelis, international policy analyst

You now know that President-elect Trump has nominated the former head of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, to be the Secretary of State. Let’s pause on that for a minute. The man who — up until a week ago — led a company with projects in countries that Transparency International finds to be some of the most corrupt in the world, including Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Russia and Papua New Guinea, will now be our country’s top diplomat. His relationships with autocratic governments that have violated human rights and his 40-year long career at Exxon are sure to cause conflicts of interest that will tarnish almost every action he takes. We will be left wondering whether a deal he strikes with another country is really in the best interest of the United States or is it only protecting some past or future business interest or petrostate dictator. Moreover, if confirmed as Secretary of State, he will establish U.S. policy positions and engage in negotiations on a broad range of international and transboundary environmental issues and agreements. Yet, under his leadership, scientists found that ExxonMobil and its subsidiaries have caused severe damage to the environment including harm to internationally protected endangered species.

This week, the Senate will hold a hearing to question Tillerson on his fitness to be Secretary of State. Friends of the Earth would like to ask Tillerson how he will avoid conflicts of interest and not make the same mistakes at the State Department as he did at Exxon in harming the environment and project-impacted communities in light of just a few examples of the oil and gas giant’s business dealings:

Papua New Guinea: Corruption and violence at ExxonMobil’s LNG project

In 2014, a U.S. government investigation into public financing for ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquid Natural Gas project identified the high risk of corruption in that country to the alleged mismanagement of landowner’s investments. Moreover, a Human Rights Watch report found that these unresolved disputes over compensation for landowners, outstanding business development grants, and inadequate benefits for employees have resulted in disputes and protests that, at times, have turned violent. Just last month the PNG Government reportedly mobilized troops to quell ongoing fighting in the PNG LNG area. The PNG government implies that the fighting is unrelated to the project, despite the frequent project-related protests and violence, and that the PNG government is now calling on ExxonMobil “to provide logistical support to supplement the security operation.” Since the project’s inception, the concerns and protests of local villagers have reportedly been met with violent crackdowns by police and military including the country’s notorious Mobile Police Squads. In another instance, a landslide originating from a PNG LNG project quarry killed 27 villagers whose families were reportedly intimidated and bullied into allowing a key construction road to be built on top of the rubble before the families could exhume the deceased.

Chad-Cameroon Pipeline: Arms purchases, human rights violations and development failures

In 2000 and 2001 the World Bank Group, the U.S. Export-Import Bank and other public financiers provided hundreds of millions of dollars towards the ExxonMobil-led $7.2 billion Chad-Cameroon Petroleum and Development Pipeline, one of the largest projects ever built on the African continent. Environmental and human rights groups from Chad, Cameroon and the international community pleaded in 1998 for a moratorium on financing this massive scheme, expressing concern that the project would lead to severe human rights abuses and cause large-scale environmental harm while lacking accountability and transparency to affected populations and the absence of the rule of law. These groups warned that Chad’s autocratic government had shown its intentions by using the funds from the ExxonMobil-led Consortium’s signing bonus to buy weapons and threatening opponents of oil extraction. A leading member of parliament opposing the project was jailed and tortured until international pressure led to his release and exile. In 2008, the World Bank withdrew from the project because Chad had failed to allocate sufficient resources to poverty reduction efforts.

Russia: Sakhalin 1, an oil and gas project puts whales at risk

Over a decade ago, independent international experts found that oil and gas projects offshore Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, including the Exxon Neftegas Ltd. (ENL) Sakhalin 1 project, (for which Tillerson reportedly served as a Director and Chairman) threaten the critically endangered Western Gray Whale with extinction. Just last May, the independent expert Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel expressed “extreme concern” for the gray whales and their habitat due to potential risks from ENL’s ongoing pier construction project in Piltun Lagoon. This lagoon provides an environment that is crucial for these whales to feed successfully; and disturbances to this area put the mothers and their calves at risk.

Indonesia: Human rights violations

Since the late 1980s, a lawsuit alleges that ExxonMobil hired military units of the Indonesian army to provide private security for its gas projects in Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Villagers accused these military men-turned-bodyguards of committing human rights abuses, including murder, torture, sexual assault and kidnapping. Villagers also accused ExxonMobil of hiring these guards despite knowledge of past abuses. Moreover, the company has been accused of implicitly supporting these human rights violations by hiring private mercenaries who provided equipment and training to the same people who committed those crimes. The case is ongoing; in 2015, a U.S. federal court allowed these claims against Exxon to proceed.

Mozambique: LNG project puts villagers at risk for a shady deal

Exxon plans to purchase a multi-billion dollar stake from Eni in the gas reserves off the northern coast of Mozambique for possible processing at a liquid natural gas terminal. It was recently revealed that Mozambique had hidden $2 billion in debt and the government used this money to purchase military equipment to protect the gas reserves and provide investment in related projects and companies. The government and its creditors had expected to use the ensuing revenues from this gas exploitation to pay off the debts to cover up its military purchases before anyone noticed. U.S. Ambassador Pittman has been critical of this Mozambique government debacle and has called for much-needed accountability, but it seems doubtful that an ExxonMobil CEO turned Secretary of State will have his back.

Take action: Urge Senator Cardin to push for the release of Rex Tillerson’s tax returns before proceeding with his nomination for Secretary of State!