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Rex Tillerson Gained Some Diplomatic Experience As ExxonMobil CEO


President-elect Donald Trump's choice for secretary of state is ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has spent four decades at the company, and he's announced he'll retire at the end of the year. If confirmed, Tillerson would be the first secretary of state to have never worked in government before. But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, he does have some diplomatic experience.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Imagine the life of an oil company CEO. If you're thinking it's all private jets and cigars, well, maybe that's part of it, but global politics also is an important element.

JOHN HOFMEISTER: I had a secret clearance with the CIA, with the FBI, et cetera.

BRADY: John Hofmeister was president of Shell Oil for three years about a decade back. He says regular contact with those agencies and the State Department is an important part of an oil company executive's job.

HOFMEISTER: I was informing them, they were informing me of the security issues and the security concerns of where we might have people at risk.

BRADY: Multinational oil companies like Shell and ExxonMobil drill in some dangerous places. To minimize the risks, they need good relations with the governments where they operate. Maintaining those can be a kind of diplomacy, and that's why Hofmeister, who's a Democrat, feels comfortable saying this about Rex Tillerson.

HOFMEISTER: I think he's spent a career preparing for such a gigantic role as secretary of state.

BRADY: Since his nomination, Tillerson has not granted interviews to journalists, but his supporters are out talking up his credentials. Tillerson is on the board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank focused on international politics. John Hamre is president and CEO and says at meetings Tillerson often demonstrates that he knows as much or more than scholars at the center.

JOHN HAMRE: He interacts with more heads of state than anybody on my board. And I have very impressive members on my board - people like Zbig Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger.

BRADY: Hamre says as head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has skills and information that'll be valuable when he meets with world leaders as secretary of state.

HAMRE: You need to know the internal dynamics of the society. You need to know what their economy is like, what their energy picture is like. I mean, it requires just detailed knowledge and preparation. These are all attributes that, you know - that every secretary of state uses every day.

BRADY: But all that experience was gained as a business executive with the goal of getting oil out of the ground and making a profit. That leaves some wondering if Tillerson can adapt those skills to be secretary of state. Andrew Steere is president and CEO of the World Resources Institute.

ANDREW STEER: Most of his shareholders think he's done a good job for them. And that should give some hope that he might do a good job for his new shareholders, who are the citizens of the United States. Seventy percent of them have said they want action on climate change urgently.

BRADY: Steer says the secretary of state plays an important role in addressing climate change. At ExxonMobil, Tillerson moved the company closer to Steer's point of view on this. And Tillerson has expressed support for the Paris climate accord, but President-elect Trump has threatened to pull out of the agreement. For Andrew Steer, that leaves an open question - where a Secretary Tillerson would come down on climate change.

STEER: That's why the confirmation hearings are so very important - because there are some very, very important questions that need to be asked and addressed.

BRADY: Even some Republican senators expressed concerns about Tiller's nomination and whether or not he can set aside his business-focused past and become an effective secretary of state. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady
Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues, climate change and the mid-Atlantic region. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.