Rex Tillerson Denies Accusations That Exxon Lobbied Against Russian Sanctions
But there’s a very good chance he did.
At Rex Tillerson's confirmation hearing today, the Secretary of State nominee was asked about ExxonMobil's history of opposing sanctions on Russia under his leadership.
"I have never lobbied against sanctions, personally. To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions. Not to my knowledge," Tillerson replied.
But an ExxonMobil lobbying disclosure reveals it pumped $2,460,000 into issues ranging from Russian diplomacy to commercial drone usage in the second quarter of 2016.
Additionally, four lobbyists for the company conferred with members of the House of Representatives regarding the STAND for Ukraine Act, or H.R. 5094—a bill that described and codified sanctions against Russia, stating that "no federal agency should take any action or extend any assistance that recognizes Russian sovereignty over Crimea, its airspace, or its territorial waters."
It's not clear where ExxonMobil stood on the bill, but it would have been in its corporate interests to oppose the sanctions. The company reported enormous losses, at a maximum of $1 billion, resulting from severed projects in Russia.
The bill would have stymied attempts to undo the sanctions for five years, effectively freezing ExxonMobil out of US-based Russian ventures for the near future, according to a story last year from Politico. If that's the route ExxonMobil chose, it was successful; a new version of the STAND for Ukraine Act was introduced by the Senate on December 9, 2016, and will now fall into the lap of President-elect Donald Trump, whose adoration for President Vladimir Putin is no secret.
In response to Tillerson's remarks, Alan Jeffers, a spokesperson for ExxonMobil, told me: "As our former chairman said, we provided information about [the] impact of sanctions, but did not lobby against sanctions." The lobbying disclosure "does not contradict his testimony," he added.
When I asked for more clarification regarding the type of lobbying activity related to the bill, Jeffers told me the report doesn't "contain the word 'against,'" which according to him, corroborates Tillerson's statement.
On multiple accounts, Tillerson denied that ExxonMobil lobbied against the bill that would have made it harder for presidents to lift sanctions against Russia, at one point saying the company merely "participated in understanding how the sanctions are going to be constructed."
Tillerson even went as far as to insinuate that ExxonMobil might have lobbied for the sanctions, when questioned by Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. "I haven't seen the form. I don't know whether [the disclosure] indicates for the sanctions or against the sanctions," Tillerson said.
The company has been known to employ the US-Russia Business Council, a prominent trade association, as an intermediary on Russian sanctions. The US-Russia Business Council told BuzzFeed News last year that it had pressured lawmakers to loosen their grip on the sanctions, which seems to somewhat contradict Tillerson's testimony today.
Documents leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung also showed that Tillerson had worked through the Bahamas-based Exxon Neftegas, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, in business dealings with Russia—specifically, a drilling project around the island of Sakhalin. When asked about its relationship with Exxon Neftegas, a spokesperson for the company told the Center for Public Integrity that it values the "simplicity and predictability" of managing companies out of the Bahamas.
Since companies only need to list the issue or bill that's being lobbied on, and not their stance on it, it's difficult to confirm, based on disclosures alone, whether ExxonMobil lobbied against the STAND for Ukraine Act.
But ExxonMobil's reasons for wanting unfettered access to Russian business ventures are clear. In 2014, the company was forced to abandon a deal brokered with Rosneft, Russia's state oil company, worth up to "tens of billions" of dollars. Almost immediately after ExxonMobil hit oil in the Arctic's Kara Sea, President Obama's sanctions were enacted. Sanctions against the country only drained the company's revenue.
Read more: The United States of Climate Denial
"Tillerson's answers were very careful. I don't think there's any way to prove or disprove [the lobbying allegations], but I doubt Exxon wasn't expressing anxiety against the sanctions," Kert Davies, director and founder of the Climate Investigations Center, told me.
A previous Freedom of Information Act request for communications between ExxonMobil and the Department of State returned no documents, Davies added. Visitor records revealed that Tillerson made at least 20 visits to the White House during President Obama's terms, with one quarter of those visits occurring after Russian sanctions were put in place. (The former CEO had difficulty remembering those visits at his confirmation hearing today.)
On the issue of sanctions, Tillerson was equivocal and corporate-minded. In one response today, he claimed "that when sanctions are imposed, they—by design—are going to harm American business." On Russia, he asserted that "we're not likely to ever be friends." In 2013, Tillerson was personally awarded Russia's Order of Friendship by President Putin.
Interestingly, Tillerson broke from the Trump Administration's general consensus on climate change by admitting the risks do exist. However, while ExxonMobil's position on global warming appeared to shift under his tenure, the company made clear that America's energy outlook will be one reliant on fossil fuels.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.