The Hillary supporters I know are in a tizzy because King Donald I (a.k.a. Prince of Darkness) has appointed Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. They love John Kerry (because he exemplifies the American dream of living off someone else’s labor? Kerry tapping into wealth created by Henry J. Heinz and son/grandson by marrying a rich widow is inspirational?) and they already hate Tillerson.
A few years ago I read Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power and, if you’re curious to know more about Mr. Tillerson, I would recommend the book. What did Tillerson actually do in Russia? Here’s a sample:
It was not until 1996 that ExxonMobil closed on terms for what became known as the Sakhalin-1 project. It was an undertaking that would test the corporation’s engineering prowess like no other. Hurricane winds swept the Sakhalin region each autumn, and ice packs up to six feet thick built up during the winter. After the spring, melting ice floes threatened to knock down any offshore oil rig in their way. Exxon decided on a plan to drill a seven-mile horizontal well from mainland Russia underneath the ocean waters. It was the only well of its kind in the world. Sakhalin-1 suggested some of the appeal of Western oil technology and engineering skill to Russia. But to make the deal on terms acceptable to Exxon, Russia’s government had had to set aside its nationalism and share oil ownership.
Tillerson formed a friendship with the Sakhalin governor and decided to rope in a state-owned Russian oil firm as a project partner, so that ExxonMobil and the Russian government would be “on the same side of the table,” as Tillerson put it later, if disputes over the project arose. ExxonMobil had connections at Rosneft, one of the smaller state-owned oil and gas companies, with about 10 percent of the country’s reserves, a company widely regarded as a bureaucratic mess even by Russia’s standards. Around 1995, Lee Raymond had met with Rosneft executives to talk about a possible acquisition of the firm. The Russian company’s leaders had said they were willing to merge into Exxon, and “begged and pleaded” to be acquired, as an executive involved recalled it, but Raymond declined because even Rosneft’s leaders seemed unsure about what their company legally owned.
[a few years into the project] Under pressure, Tillerson applied the Exxon formula: no surrender. “We jacked this all the way to the top,” recalled one of his colleagues. “We brought the issue up with the president [Putin] and we said, ‘Look, we have got the contract signed, we are doing everything we are supposed to do—here are the rules. And these guys don’t want to follow the rules. What are you going to do about it?’” Putin offered to write out an executive order saying that Sakhalin-1 could proceed, but Tillerson refused. Putin did not have enough legal authority to satisfy ExxonMobil; Tillerson said he did not want to operate by decree, but by durable laws. Tillerson wanted to have “all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted exactly according to Russian law and regulation, and if we couldn’t get it done, then we were not going to do it,” the former executive remembered. Ultimately, after Putin “blew his stack” at ExxonMobil’s affront, the Russian president agreed.
Tillerson is also characterized in the book as taking an actuarial approach to climate change. Upon taking over as CEO he assembled a team of experts to try to figure out how much could be predicted. Then Exxon tried to sit down with people who made a living as climate change alarmists:
On climate change, Cohen and Stuewer flashed PowerPoint slides outlining draft language of a new formulation of ExxonMobil’s position. “They were really dancing around the question of certainty” about the risks of global warming and the evidence that man-made activity contributed, recalled Leslie Lowe, one of the participants. Lowe introduced the metaphor of having insurance against fire: Why not work against man-made contributions to climate change, even if there remained uncertainty about every last detail of cause and effect? Yes, the ExxonMobil side responded, but you don’t spend all of your money in life on insurance. You calculate how large and valuable an asset you are trying to insure, and how big a risk you face. Climate was like everything else ExxonMobil did: It was a matter of risk management, Cohen emphasized.
Exxon under Tillerson agrees with the rest of the engineering world:
Battery technology interested ExxonMobil’s corporate strategists most of all. If there was one emerging energy technology that seemed to have the practical potential to disrupt the oil industry’s assumptions about the transportation economy, this was it. “I always put batteries in the category of game changers,” an ExxonMobil executive involved in the strategic technology review recalled. The most important questions involved the potential for breakthroughs in the “energy intensity” …
Other than the money he presumably takes for himself, Tillerson tries to be conservative:
Clinton introduced Diane Sawyer. She summoned to the stage members of a panel to talk about women’s issues; the panel included Tillerson and Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, the investment bank with a public reputation as much in need of repair as ExxonMobil’s. The ballroom atmosphere suggested the laying on of liberal, globalized hands to cleanse sinful multinational corporations. “These are some of the power hitters,” Sawyer said of Tillerson and Blankfein. Tillerson talked about ExxonMobil’s charitable initiatives to support girls and women in some of the poor countries where the corporation extracted oil. “Technology comes very natural to ExxonMobil,” he said. “What are the technologies that will provide them [girls and women] capabilities to undertake their daily activities in a more effective and efficient way?” Sawyer later asked him: What is the responsibility of a multinational corporation to make the world better through charitable activity? Is it a tithe of 10 percent? How much? “Ultimately,” Tillerson said, “this is our shareholders’ money we’re spending. It’s not my money to tithe. It’s not the corporation’s. It’s our shareholders’.”
The most damning part of the book is that in 2009 Tillerson spent $41 billion to acquire XTO, a shale gas company, just in time for the complete collapse of natural gas prices (XOM has a market cap of $380 billion today). Maybe it will pay off in the long run?
The author of the book seems to be primarily in sympathy with Obama and other Democrats. Nonetheless he gives Tillerson some credit on financial performance:
On July 28, 2011, ExxonMobil announced its profits for the first half of the year. The total came in at $21.3 billion, a whisker under the amount the corporation reported during the same period in 2008, when it set a record for the most nominal profit earned by any corporation in American history. Eight days later, on August 5, 2011, Standard & Poor’s announced the first-ever ratings downgrade of the bonds issued by the United States Treasury, marking them down from a AAA rating to AA-plus. The Standard & Poor’s downgrade meant that ExxonMobil, one of only four American corporations to maintain the AAA mark, now possessed a credit rating superior to that of the United States.
Standard & Poor’s received intense criticism for its judgment that the American government’s ability to repay its lenders might be in any doubt. Yet the fiscal trajectories of the United States Treasury and ExxonMobil had certainly diverged. In 1999, the year that Exxon’s acquisition of Mobil closed, the federal government and the corporation each took in more money annually than was required to meet expenses. Their paths then divided. In an era of terrorism, expeditionary wars, and upheaval abroad, coupled with tax cutting and reckless financial speculation at home, one navigated confidently, while the other foundered. From the day of the Mobil merger closing until the day of the S&P downgrade, the net cash flow of the United States—receipts minus expenditures—was approximately negative $5.7 trillion. ExxonMobil’s net cash flow from operations and asset sales during the same period was a positive $493 billion.