Who is Rex Tillerson?

December 11, 2016, 1:37pm

This segment originally aired Dec. 8, 2016, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Reports that ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is Donald Trump’s favorite for secretary of state have everyone frantically Googling to find out what they can about the American businessman. But, as VICE News Tonight correspondent Arielle Duhaime-Ross discovered, Tillerson really, really likes his privacy. So there isn’t a whole lot out there to help us understand who he is.

We did recently dig up some biographical details about Tillerson: He was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1952. He joined ExxonMobil in 1975 after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a civil engineering degree. He never left the oil and gas company and worked his way up to the top, eventually becoming chairman and CEO in 2006.

Steve Coll, author of “Private Empire; ExxonMobil and American Power,” said Tillerson was seen as a “more effective communicator” than his predecessor, Lee Raymond, who was a staunch denier of climate change. Tillerson, on the other hand, has said he believes climate change is real but thinks there are more pressing priorities, such as widespread abject poverty.


Tillerson has no experience in the public sector, a first for a secretary of state candidate. But it isn’t necessarily his lack of experience, nor his soft spot for the Boy Scouts of America, that critics find troubling about his appearance on Trump’s short list. It’s Tillerson’s reportedly cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2013, Putin bestowed upon Tillerson an “order of friendship,” a state decoration awarded to foreign nationals for their work benefitting Russia. Their friendship has a lot to do with what is believed to lie beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean’s Kara Sea.

In his book, Coll describes a meeting between Putin and Tillerson in the summer of 2011. Speaking from the Black Sea resort Sochi, the pair announced before television cameras a partnership between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, the Russian state oil giant that is headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of Putin. “The oil firms agreed to invest at least $3.2 billion to develop oil beneath the Arctic Kara Sea; if the deal survived the backtracking and disputes that disrupted so many other Russian oil deals, the investment in the project could reach $500 billion,” Coll wrote.

The deal would have given Exxon access to the Russian Arctic shelf, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates contains about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. In exchange, Exxon would give Rosneft access to its superior drilling technology. Exxon ultimately had to pull out of the deal because Russian oil exploration was stymied by western sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Writing for the New Yorker on Sunday, Coll described the news that Trump is expected to nominate Tillerson as his secretary of state as “astonishing on many levels.”

“As an exercise of public diplomacy, it will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw neocolonial exercise in securing resources.”

Tillerson joining Trump’s Cabinet could signal a dramatic departure from the environmental concerns of President Obama’s administration. Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a joint statement in March committing themselves to protecting the Arctic, effectively putting a hold on U.S. aspirations for offshore Arctic projects.

CORRECTION (Dec. 13, 4:00 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the state where Tillerson was born. He is from Wichita Falls, Texas, not Wichita Falls, Kansas.