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Tillerson to answer for Trump, big oil, even Putin in hearing



Petroleumworld.com 01 11 2017 Rex Tillerson helped seal multibillion-dollar deals from Venezuela to Russia as Exxon Mobil Corp.'s CEO. Now senators weighing his nomination for secretary of state will want to know if he can be as effective working for the U.S. -- even when it conflicts with the interests of “Big Oil.”

Tillerson's business background, and lack of experience in government, is unprecedented for someone in line to become America's top diplomat. Heading into his confirmation hearing Wednesday, he faces questions about his business links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and will be pressed to answer for -- or disavow -- President-elect Donald Trump's own call for warmer relations with the Russian leader.

“My No. 1 question to him was about how he intends to make that transition, how clearly he sees the difference,” Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told reporters last week of the shift Tillerson would need to make after 41 years at Exxon, the world's largest energy company by market value. “I am as concerned, if not more concerned, about what the president-elect's views are going to be -- the centrality of NATO to our security, the importance of pushing back on Putin and Russia,” he said after meeting with Tillerson.

Tillerson, 64, embodies Trump's argument that what government needs is an eye for cutting deals -- or shredding them -- even if that means overturning decades of conventional wisdom in foreign policy. In 2007, the Exxon chairman and chief executive officer halted new investment in Venezuela after then-President Hugo Chavez announced plans to nationalize an oil field. And in 2011, he signed an exploration contract with leaders of Iraq's Kurdistan region, riling the central government in Baghdad and the State Department he'd now lead.

While Tillerson comes from outside the foreign policy establishment, he has the backing of some big names, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who suggested his name to Trump in November, and Stephen Hadley, who was President George W. Bush's national security adviser. Both are partners in a consulting firm that has worked for Exxon.

“He has a wealth of experience all over the world that will be very useful to the president-elect, and he has contacts and relationships all over the world that he will be able to use on behalf of the new administration,” Hadley said in an interview. “He's also got experience managing a large, far-flung organization, and that of course is what the State Department and foreign service are.”

While Democrats alone don't have the numbers to block Tillerson's nomination, Trump is counting on support from people like Hadley to help his choice clear some of the thornier questions during the hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- starting with the Russia connection.

Order of Friendship

Tillerson was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship in 2013, after helping establish Exxon's presence in Russia in the 1990s. In 2011, Putin personally presided over the signing of a deal between Exxon and state-owned oil giant Rosneft that gave the U.S. company access to potentially tens of billions of barrels of oil in Arctic deposits. That work was frozen by U.S.-ordered sanctions in 2014 to punish Russia for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

In 2016, Exxon provided input to congressional aides -- requesting details and answering questions -- on legislation that would have made it harder for the next president to lift the sanctions against Russia that halted Exxon's Arctic drilling, company spokesman Alan Jeffers said.

While Exxon never took a position for or against the bill, according to Jeffers, involvement in that proposal could raise new questions about the company's relationship with Russia and whether Tillerson can be truly independent as he helps oversee the sanctions that remain in place against Russia. Several senators, including some who serve on the Foreign Relations panel such as Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, want to impose new sanctions against Putin.

Story by Nick Wadhams and Joe Carroll from Bloomberg News.

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