Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s life is intimately tied to US energy policy and all the social devastation that comes with it.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently accompanied Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia, where, alongside some bizarre political theater and $110 billion in arms sales, plans for a new project unfolded. ExxonMobil, the oil company Tillerson formerly helmed, inked a major investment deal with the Saudi Arabia Industries Corporation (SABIC).
Strikingly, the endeavor was not to fund oil field development in Saudi Arabia with US dollars. Rather, SABIC agreed to finance a new petrochemical complex in Texas. Though Tillerson promised that he would recuse himself from any Exxon-related business for one year, he attended the signing ceremony.
The new plant will open in San Patricio, a rural county on the Gulf of Mexico with a population of about 64,000. The project belongs to Exxon’s “Growing the Gulf” initiative, which will funnel more than $20 billion into the region’s oil and chemical industries.
The Saudi-Exxon deal highlights how global capitalism often complicates politicians’ claims that fossil fuel investments help make the United States energy independent. How would Trump’s supporters react if they knew that Saudi money was paying for these new industrial jobs?
So far, government officials and Exxon executives don’t seem particularly concerned about public reaction. While many Americans will find the idea of Saudi investment driving industrial growth in domestic extractive industries odd, it reflects a new international order in which the country has become a major player.
People in Africa might be less surprised: Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a land grab there since at least 2009, when King Abdullah launched an initiative for “Agriculture Investments Abroad” — a policy that aimed to stabilize the kingdom’s food supply as water shortages made its earlier program of internal agricultural subsidy untenable. Abdullah called the initiative “controlled externalization.” While carried out with heavy government subsidy, the plan, known as KAISAIA, also invited private investors to join in on building out the empire.
The combination of corporate and state power that defines the reenergized Saudi imperial project mirrors the approach of the current American administration, and Tillerson’s appointment as secretary of state. In a new world of colonial land grabs where the United States is no longer as decisively “on top,” rearticulating the relationship between corporate and state power is helping the American ruling class navigate changing tides.
And along with Russia and China, Saudi Arabia and the US have another thing in common: in a world on the tipping point of catastrophic climate change, they are fossil fuel empires with terrible records on a host of issues, including land and labor rights.
Fossil Fuel Empire
When Tillerson faced the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, ranking member Ben Cardin laid out the hearing’s stakes. “I believe the United States today stands at a turning point in history,” the senator said:
National power, economic, military, diplomatic is being redefined and redistributed across the globe. International institutions, international financial and economic orders are under distress. Climate change is causing irreparable harm and creating and leading to great instability. In many parts of the world, there’s a view that American power, determination, and, maybe more importantly, our support for American values is uncertain.
Meanwhile, US military forces were crossing into Poland as part of a NATO-led effort to secure European borders against Russia. Some troops remained there, and others fanned out into the Baltics and elsewhere across Central and Eastern Europe.
Though continents apart, these two events reflected increasing concerns about Russia’s ambitions and its role in the 2016 election. To many, Tillerson’s nomination offered further evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russian president Vladimir Putin. After all, Exxon has a number of long-term investments in Russia’s fossil fuel industry, including a deal with Rosneft, the Russian state oil giant, which gives the American company access to tens of billions of dollars of underground reserves.
Since the confirmation hearing, however, the former oil executive has transformed from a major point of contention to one of the more reasonable members of Trump’s cabinet — a hodge-podge of the American right who disagree on everything from trade policy to same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, he remains a dangerous figure: an enthusiastic oil statesman with stereotypical Texas swagger, keenly aware of the changing balance of international power and almost giddy at the chance to help shape it from a high-ranking political post.
“[P]eoples and nations are deeply unsettled,” he explained at the Senate hearing. “Old ideas and international norms which were well understood and governed . . . may no longer be effective in our time.” He pointed to the emergence of Russia and China as imperial powers and to challenges to American financial and geopolitical interests worldwide.
His international vision also darkens the domestic front: attacks on workers have intensified, and the United States has renewed its commitment to a set of environment policies that can only be deemed fossil fuel suicide.
It’s no accident that Senator Cardin’s opening remarks evoked both foreign policy and climate change. Statecraft, which includes securing access to different energy sources, is forged at the highest levels of government and deeply tied into our changing climate. Tillerson personifies this link — he ran a company now synonymous with climate change “denial, delay, and delusion” and which has demonstrated an antipathy not only toward the planet and the already millions of climate refugees but also toward state sovereignty.
Back in January, protesters interrupted Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, saying that his state department would “burn the Arctic, ruin the climate, and destroy the future.” The administration responded by pushing through the final approval for Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to drill beneath the Missouri River and complete the Dakota Access Pipeline, ignoring the Standing Rock Sioux’s treaty rights and threatening a water source millions of people rely on.
After a national climate march, Trump announced that he was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump explained. By evoking Pittsburgh, once one of the nation’s industrial centers, Trump presented his vision of the United States as a fossil fuel empire.
Indeed, at that very moment, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (NPR), where he declared that “this is land that was set up with the sole intention of oil and gas production.” Of course, the NPR belongs to and is still used by many indigenous Alaskans, such as the Kuukpik and Inupiaq, who are trying to protect their land from the extractive industries Zinke and Tillerson are promoting.
Trump’s other cabinet members make the administration’s priorities even clearer. Rick Perry, former Texas governor and board member of two of the companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline (ETP and Sunoco Logistics), became energy secretary after promising to abolish the department during his own presidential campaign.
Before being chosen to lead the Department of Interior, Zinke opposed fracking regulations on federal lands, worked to undo the Clean Air Act, and strongly supported pipeline development. Others, such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Defense Secretary General James Mattis, will help enact Trump’s plans to reindustrialize the nation by accelerating the fossil fuel extraction race in the nation’s oil and natural gas fields and rebranding the empire not only as a massive energy consumer but also as an energy exporter. To accomplish this goal, industrialization must be made profitable by undoing regulations, crushing unions, and ignoring indigenous land rights, since a substantial portion of the nation’s energy reserves sit on current tribal land holdings.
Though the initial controversy over Tillerson’s nomination has calmed, the reasons he became a flashpoint have not disappeared: he personifies Trump’s plans for the United States at a moment when the global balance of power that kept America on top is crumbling.
While the Trump administration’s imperial style looks more like the Bush administration’s “shock and awe” than Obama’s shadow wars, the United States’ role in world politics has shifted since the early 2000s as China, the European Union, and Russia have broadened their reach. The world that made Tillerson a powerful man is not the same as the one that he must now try to manage.
When Tillerson began his career at ExxonMobil more than forty years ago, two superpowers dominated the world. Today, the imperial pecking order is up for grabs, and global neoliberalism has undermined the promises of decolonization by upending national economies that once promised self-reliance and sovereignty. Fossil fuels still run the world, but now their use destabilizes it — politically, socially, and ecologically. As secretary of state, Tillerson represents the ruling class’s attempt to reimpose — internationally and domestically — an old order on a new world.
If American imperialism must reckon with the changing balance of international power, it makes sense that its ruling class would turn to the oil industry for inspiration. Companies like ExxonMobil, after all, have toppled governments and remade nations right alongside the State Department. Leading Exxon, as Rex Tillerson did for over a decade, means dabbling in statecraft.
In fact, both by intention and by accident, ExxonMobil and other oil companies, like BP and Shell, helped create the modern nation. As decolonization tore apart old empires, many formerly colonized nations became petrostates dependent on oil sales — Angola, Chad, and Nigeria, for example. As anthropologist James Ferguson explains, these nations tend to be “socially thin”: they lack basic infrastructure and social services; their political fabric is often ragged, if it meaningfully exists at all.
In Angola, for example, infrastructure in the volatile countryside is so poor that companies transport their imported employees to the oil fields by helicopter, completely bypassing the instability and repression that the energy economy has wrought — not to mention the Angolans themselves, who are largely excluded from the fossil fuel industry.
Observers have largely blamed postcolonial petrostates’ failures on the “resource curse” or, more insultingly, on the project of national independence itself. If the repeated claim that energy-reliant national economies are prone to political violence and instability has any truth, it comes from the fact that, behind the scenes and often out of the public eye, companies like ExxonMobil helped ensure such an outcome.
Since being sworn in, Tillerson has kept a low profile. He doesn’t need the twenty-four-hour news cycle like Trump and Steve Bannon do. While in Germany for the G20 summit, he kept reporters at bay, and in June he quietly traveled to Mexico. But while his approach differs from some of his White House colleagues, Tillerson still aims to ramp up American fossil fuel power.
The United States’ oil empire extends all over the world, from pipelines across the Great Plains to recent efforts to retake Mosul. Indeed, we should understand Trump’s promise to “win wars again” as a commitment to empire building and regime change. Fossil fuels sit at the center of this vision, as Trump’s comment that the United States should “take” Iraq’s oil as repayment for the cost of the American-led occupation shows.
The international ruling class tends to find this kind of crass expropriation more palatable when it’s “bilateral” and financialized. That’s why Tillerson’s experience at ExxonMobil matters so much.
In 1988, Exxon negotiated the landmark Convention for Exploration, Exploitation, and Transportation of Hydrocarbons in Chad, which allowed Chevron, ExxonMobil, and PETRONAS to claim more than a third of the revenue produced from the country’s oil until 2023. Even by the standards of other petrostates, the theft of Chad’s wealth by ExxonMobil was remarkable: Nigeria, for example, saw only about 10 percent of revenue go to the oil companies. Further, recognizing that Chad’s volatile political situation was unfavorable for the long-term capital investments that oil drilling and export require, Exxon also secured what became known as a “stability clause.”
According to Steve Coll, author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, this extraordinary provision ensured that Exxon would remain outside of the grasp of the Chadian government. The clause was “strikingly broad — it could even be interpreted to mean that future governments . . . might be prevented from broadening civic freedoms or permitting unions to organize if such changes raised . . . costs.” Coll points out that it’s “not surprising” that ExxonMobil could pen such a deal. After all, the company’s “1988 net profits of $5.3 billion exceeded by several times the size of Chad’s entire economy.”
In its most basic sense, state sovereignty is supposed to mean the ability to control territory, but ExxonMobil’s sheer economic power called Chad’s sovereignty into question less than thirty years after the nation secured independence from France. Government was reduced to what Ferguson describes as “the ability to provide contractual legal authority that can legitimate the extractive work of transnational firms.” The power to legitimize the contracts was not accompanied by the meaningful ability to say no to entering into the agreements in the first place. This asymmetry, so fundamental to modern-day colonialism, bore remarkable similarity to the process by which Native Americans were dispossessed of lands through treaties.
Company executives, including Tillerson — who was working in the international division at the time — seemed giddy about the possibilities: in Chad, the company had “the opportunity to put things into place perhaps the way you’d like to see them carried out from the very beginning.” By the 1980s, ExxonMobil was battling enormous regulatory systems in developed nations like the United States. Even if the company wasn’t held to account for the human and ecological destruction it caused, the mere existence of regulatory and legal apparatuses that could be turned against them represented a threat to the company’s future operations. In a place like Chad, on the other hand, ExxonMobil saw a chance to shape the nation around the needs of the company: as the oil markets went, so did the nation — and Chad’s government officials knew it.
Exxon also used the World Bank to achieve its goals: the agency made loans dependent on agreements that oil revenue would be used to build the social infrastructure that might stabilize Exxon’s investments. In what can only be perceived as a return of colonial-era financial ties, control of Chad’s oil revenue was rerouted through Europe — this time to London instead of Paris.
These exercises in soft power set expectations for how the international flow of oil might be managed by Western capital in the years after the 1970s confrontations with OPEC, and they shaped recent history’s flashier oil interventions, like the wars in Iraq. The line between ExxonMobil’s economic power and the United States’ imperial reach has become murky at best. Depending on the angle you look from, it might look like ExxonMobil is an arm of the US state; from another, the reverse appears true.
No One Colonizes Innocently
Considering the role fossil fuels have played in the United States’ imperial strategy, we should also consider their impact on domestic projects, which have always been deeply intertwined with the international projection of power.
The outcomes have striking similarities: a dispossessed indigenous population, high levels of poverty in the regions that produce fossil fuels, and, with the exception of gains won through unionization, the creation of socially thin communities that often lack public services.
The recent Bakken field boomtowns — many of which went bust during the 2015 drop in oil and gas prices — perfectly illustrate these domestic impacts. The influx of oil field workers stretched the area’s already weak infrastructure beyond capacity. Schools and jails quickly became overcrowded. Housing was so scare that families paid $2,500 a month to crowd into a small trailer. Drug use increased, as did violent crime, often related to alcohol abuse.
Some small towns, like Watford City, North Dakota, pushed their residents’ basic needs onto the private market, requiring, for example, that developers pay to extend sewer lines to properties built for the new workers.
We find this social thinness in the workplace as well as in the infrastructure. In the United States, energy production tops the list of deadly jobs, with death rates several times higher than the rate for the average American worker — even considering the general rise in workplace deaths, which began following the Great Recession and peaked in 2014.
Companies often face little or no censure from oversight agencies following a workplace disaster. Meanwhile, eroding safety regulations have caused fatal black lung cases to spike across coal country, despite the fact that the technology to prevent the disease has been available for over forty years.
The Trump administration might ax federal agencies like OSHA, which is already severely understaffed. Such underfunding allows companies to cut safety corners, racking up savings at the expense of workers’ lives and environmental protection. Meanwhile, deregulation helps increase oil and natural gas development by lowering the financial hurdle for initial capital investments. Developing the nation’s fossil fuel reserves for international export — especially to countries where the US is vying for influence with Russia and China — is a Trump administration priority to build soft power in geostrategic locations like Eastern Europe.
Moreover, international statecraft and domestic policies regularly intertwine in the dispossession of indigenous people from their lands and the brutal repression that follows when they resist.
During the last half of 2016, the connection between fossil fuel development and imperial power was put on display for the world in South Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux attempted to block ETP’s Dakota Access Pipeline. Private security guards and the Morton County sheriff’s office took turns brutally repressing protesters, arresting hundreds and attacking water protectors with dogs, water cannons, and concussion grenades.
Just as ExxonMobil and the World Bank collaborated to strip the Chadian government of meaningful sovereignty, the American state and ETP ran roughshod over the Standing Rock Sioux’s sovereignty and treaty rights. After all, native self-determination was all that stood in the way of a pipeline that would sweep oil across the Great Plains and into the Midwest, where it could be refined for market.
As the oil is pumped away from the Bakken fields, the vacuum left will be filled with busted boomtowns, life-threatening working conditions, and, in only a matter of time, an oil spill that will contaminate millions of residents’ drinking water. All the while, carbon emissions will continue, and many of the people who fought the pipeline will find their homes uninhabitable, no longer able to support the vibrant Native life that once covered the Great Plains.
This tightly woven tapestry of oppression, dispossession, and repression represents ExxonMobil’s version of statecraft, which harnesses national infrastructure to pipe oil out of the ground as cheaply as possible. Just ignore the bodies along the way, whether they are in Chad, Iraq, the Bakken, or the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
At the root of these policies lies a basic problem that, in an era of climate disruption, will shape our lives and the struggles to come: the social distribution of energy. Because energy underpins nearly every aspect of life, it has the potential to destabilize the capitalist regime. Energy makes automation possible and provides higher standards of living. The question of who controls it and for what purpose opens up questions about the nature of power and our society.
All of this is, of course, bigger than Tillerson. The United States is doubling down on a foreign policy designed to maintain and rebuild a fossil fuel empire at the expense of developing energy alternatives.
Today, the solar industry employs more people than the coal industry, and we should make power central to international energy policy if we want to limit climate disruption. In other words, the evils of fossil fuel society aren’t necessary: they are being kept in place while an alternative sits right in front of us.
Tillerson’s professional life has been intimately tied to the United States’ energy policies and all the social ills and political evils they entail. Even as the world is changing, he — along with the rest of the Trump administration and most of the bipartisan political establishment — is clinging to a system that will destroy us.
With Trump in the White House, Tillerson leading the State Department, and the rest of the right-wing horror show along for the ride, we can expect American energy policy to invest its political capital in making the country even friendlier to fossil fuels.
The coal companies’ mood says it all. The first issue of the industry journal Coal Age after the election greeted the new president giddily. Luke Popovich, spokesperson for the National Mining Association, christened Trump “coal’s savior.” Editor Steve Fiscor practically salivated as he lauded Trump’s plan to “unleash an energy revolution.”
The path to this future will have three elements: secure the land, weaken labor, and dismantle regulations. Only by cementing anti-imperialism, native sovereignty, and climate justice as core elements of the class struggle can we hope to respond and resist Tillerson as well as the state and industrial power that he represents.