The State Department Drama Shows Just How Far Trump Will Go for Big Oil

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(Photo: Samira / Flickr)

It’s said that you can tell a lot about people by the company they keep. And the shady characters President Trump has surrounded himself with represent a new low even by Washington standards.

One thread that ties many of these people together is their deep connection with the fossil fuel industry — and their willingness to implement the industry’s agenda, regardless of the impacts on people and planet.

The recent drama at the State Department encapsulates this neatly. Trump recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and tapped CIA chief Mike Pompeo, a former Congress member from Kansas, to replace him.

This may signal a number of disturbing changes. Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo has been a proponent of war with Iran, openly supported torture, and sent disturbing signals of approval to the far right, claiming that “Islamic leaders across America” are “potentially complicit” in terrorist attacks. He’s a scary choice for top diplomat.

But on climate, the move signals more continuity than change.

Though sometimes regarded as a “moderate” on climate for wanting to keep the U.S. in the Paris agreement, Tillerson was nonetheless a natural choice for a deeply pro-fossil fuel administration.

Prior to becoming secretary of state, after all, Tillerson was CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest fossil fuel company.

There, he presided over a massive cover-up of company scientists’ findings on the destructive effects of burning fossil fuels. And he potentially misled investors on the risks of the company’s business, triggering an investigation by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts.

In the course of the investigation, it came to light that Tillerson had been using a second e-mail address at Exxon — under the alias “Wayne Tracker” — for internal company emails. Several years’ worth of e-mails from the Wayne Tracker account have been erased, meaning they cannot be examined by investigators.

One line of investigation is whether Tillerson used the Wayne Tracker e-mail for more candid appraisals of Exxon’s business risk from climate-damaging activities, while sharing a rosier picture with investors and the public. If this is the case, Tillerson may have committed a criminal offense under Section 906 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which provides for criminal penalties for corporate CEOs who knowingly sign off on misleading reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission about  a company’s financial condition.

None of that would have been disqualifying in the Trump administration, however. And once in office, Tillerson predictably followed an anti-climate action agenda.

His State Department used a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council to systematically water down language on climate change impacts in the Arctic, a move in which he may have been personally involved. And while much is made of Tillerson’s reported desire to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate accord, his apparent motivations — namely, making sure fossil fuel companies had a chance to water down that pact, too — were outright dangerous.

What, then, of his successor Pompeo?

The campaign finance watchdog Opensecrets.org identified Pompeo as the “#1 all time recipient” of money from Koch Industries during his time in Congress. The Koch conglomerate has interests in exploration and drillingpipelinestradingrefining, and gas supply. So the billionaire Koch brothers who run the business (and a vast GOP fundraising network) have a natural interest in funding climate disinformation, and they do — lavishly.

With Pompeo, they got their money’s worth.

Pompeo has evaded questions about the science of climate change, and once accused the Obama administration of “worshiping a radical environmental agenda” for its relatively modest steps to address climate change. If the Senate confirms him, this is the top U.S. diplomat the rest of the world must deal with on international efforts to combat the greatest existential threat to human civilization.

So the individual in charge changes, but the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy continues. And it continues on the domestic side, as well.

At the EPA there’s Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general long in the oil and gas industry’s pocket. He’s been busy gutting regulations to help dirty industries make more money, while forcing out professional EPA staff.

And over at the Energy Department there’s Rick Perry, the former Texas governor with extensive oil and gas ties, who’s been photographed literally hugging coal billionaire Robert Murray. Worse, Perry has used his office to push terrible policies handpicked by Murray, such as charging utility customers to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants.

At every turn, the company this administration keeps is the most dangerous industry on earth. And that’s bad news for people and planet alike.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.