Rex Tillerson Confirmed by Senate and Oil Mogul Becomes Secretary of State

Several Democrats joined Republicans in the vote, handing Exxon's former chief executive the reins to the nation's climate diplomacy.

Rex Tillerson was approved by the Senate as secretary of state
Former Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state despite doubts about his stance on climate change and his ties to Russia. Credit: Getty Images

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Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be Donald Trump’s secretary of state on Wednesday, making an oil mogul the nation’s top diplomat and fourth in line for the presidency.

Tillerson, the sixth Trump cabinet member to be approved by the Senate, was confirmed by the closest margin so far: 56 to 43. All Republicans, along with Angus King (I-Me.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and Mark Warner from (D-Va.)—approved him over objections by many Democrats to his hedging on climate change and doubts about his ability to avoid conflicts of interest on diplomatic issues relating to his former employer. Chris Coons (D-Del.) did not participate in the vote.

Democrats and some Republicans have also questioned Tillerson’s ability to forcefully advocate for American interests because of his business relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon signed a massive oil and gas deal with Russia in 2011 and then argued against sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration after Russia invaded Ukraine. Others questioned his views on broader human rights issues.

As secretary of state, Tillerson and his staff will spearhead the United States’ participation in global climate efforts, from the landmark Paris climate agreement to the nation’s efforts to reaching the climate goals built into the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. He’ll also represent the United States on the Arctic Council; America is chairing the council until May.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Tillerson was repeatedly asked to clarify his position on climate change. Although he said the climate is changing, he indicated he believes the science is not conclusive enough to discuss how rising greenhouse gas emissions will affect life on Earth, nor what is the best policy to confront it. He played down the urgency of the climate change as a national security issue.

When asked by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to disclose his stance on the issue, Tillerson said: “The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” He also said he didn’t see climate change “as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do.”

Following that hearing on Jan. 11, Tillerson was sent additional questions, including some on climate change. In those written responses he appeared to walk back on some of his earlier answers, BuzzFeed News reported. In one he wrote: “I agree with the consensus view that combustion of fossil fuels is a leading cause for increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I understand these gases to be a factor in rising temperature, but I do not believe the scientific consensus supports their characterization as the ‘key’ factor.” (The International Panel on Climate Change, however, clearly says increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the primary driver of global warming.)

Tillerson repeatedly said during his hearing that he believed that the United States should “maintain its seat at the table” in the Paris climate agreement, seemingly putting himself at odds with Trump, who has said he wants out of the accord. But when pressed, Tillerson said the decision is the president’s. “I’ll carry out his policies in order to be as successful as possible,” he said. He suggested that Trump’s “America First” motto would guide the administration in decisions on the global climate accord. Tillerson’s decision to defer to Trump was later repeated in his written responses.

As the chairman and chief executive of Exxon until a month ago, Tillerson was also queried during the hearing about what Exxon knew about climate change and when. He declined to answer, deferring to Exxon. A 2015 InsideClimate News investigation found that Exxon’s own scientists researched climate change as far back as the 1970s. At least two state attorneys general are probing whether Exxon misled consumers about the climate risks associated with its business.

Tillerson also came in for considerable grilling over Exxon’s landmark contract with Russia in 2011 to develop oil and gas in the Arctic and its lobbying against sanctions. At first, Tillerson said he did not know of any lobbying on the sanctions, and then said any discussions with the Obama administration were about quickly finishing an exploration well that was underway when the sanctions were imposed.

Exxon issued a statement during the hearing that the company “provided information about impact of sanctions, but did not lobby against sanctions.”

But lawmakers contended that efforts to shape the sanctions constituted lobbying.

Many environmental activist groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Climate Hawks Vote quickly criticized Tillerson’s confirmation. “The Senators voting to confirm Rex Tillerson have clearly left their spines at home,” said Naomi Ages, a Greenpeace campaigner. “Instead of standing up to a historically unpopular President, they’re letting Trump hand the State department over to the oil and gas industry.”

World Resources Institute was among several science advocacy and climate research organizations to issue statements urging Tillerson to uphold the United States’ climate commitments and support further climate action. “As Secretary of State, Mr Tillerson must shift from looking after business interests to looking after the needs of all Americans,” said WRI’s Paula Caballero. “This will require continuing America’s strong leadership to addressing climate change, one of the greatest economic and national security threats of our time.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works boycotted a planned vote to advance Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Ahead of the vote, ranking committee member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) called some of Pruitt’s answers to questions “woefully inadequate” and criticized the nominee for not handing over documents concerning litigation he is involved with as attorney general.

Democrats similarly boycotted two Senate Finance Committee votes to push forward the nominations of Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for health and human services secretary. Despite not technically having the votes to act on these nominations, Republicans pushed through the nominations anyway.

Marianne Lavelle and Neela Banerjee contributed reporting for this story.