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Rex Tillerson, Trump’s likely secretary of state, is a life-long oil man who backs Keystone

Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation, addresses the media following the annual shareholder's meeting Wednesday, May 26, 2010, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, G.J. McCarthy)

G.J. McCARTHY/Staff Photographer/The Associated Press

Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump's likely choice for secretary of state, is a petroleum executive greatly admired by Vladimir Putin, knows the Canadian petroleum industry intimately and is a big cheerleader of the Keystone pipeline.

With Mr. Tillerson, Canadian oil, largely frozen out of the White House for the past eight years, would potentially have one of its own in the state department and, through Mr. Tillerson, a direct line to the president.

Robert Skinner, an executive fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and former oil executive and bureaucrat, said Mr. Tillerson's nomination "would be viewed with a sense of elation" in downtown Calgary, compared with the outgoing administration.

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Numerous American news organizations, citing confidential sources, said Mr. Trump had settled on the 64-year-old executive to represent his administration's foreign policy. If so, then the president-elect has confirmed that he intends to implement his election manifesto, and has crafted a cabinet of former generals and corporate executives to execute his agenda.

While declining to confirm media reports that he had chosen Mr. Tillerson to be his secretary of state, Mr. Trump told Fox News Sunday that he had "tremendous respect" for the executive, calling him a "world class player."

A Wichita Falls native with a degree in engineering, Mr. Tillerson joined the corporate predecessor of Exxon Mobil straight out of college and has been with the company ever since, working in Yemen, Russia and Thailand, and becoming chairman and CEO in 2006. He is set to retire next year. The son of a Boy Scout official, he is passionate about the organization and served as its president from 2010 to 2012. Like Mr. Trump, he has no direct political experience, but also like Mr. Trump, his business connections took him around the world. Both men are well-experienced in complicated negotiations involving foreign businesses, and sometimes governments.

Exxon Mobil is the world's largest publicly traded oil company and has 75,000 employees at operations across the globe, including in Nigeria, Qatar and Azerbaijan. The company's operations include a long presence in Chad, ruled by authoritarian President Idriss Déby.

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Mr. Tillerson's years with Exxon Mobil, which holds a 69.6-per-cent ownership of Calgary-based Imperial Oil Ltd., has also made Mr. Tillerson deeply knowledgeable about at least some aspects of Canada's economy. As well as holding a major stake in oil-sands ventures, Exxon Mobil is involved in oil-by-rail transport, East Coast offshore developments, oil refining, fuel distribution and a proposed multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas project for the West Coast.

Mr. Tillerson acknowledges the responsibility of his industry in the fight against global warming; he advocates a carbon tax over the more cumbersome cap-and-trade system. But Exxon Mobil has not stood alongside other major oil-sands developers, including Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Shell Canada Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc. and Suncor Energy Inc. in support of the Alberta government's plans to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

At a shareholders meeting in 2013, Mr. Tillerson responded to calls among environmentalists for the company to establish its own emissions targets by saying that reducing oil production would hurt efforts to lift people from poverty.

"What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?" he asked.

Mr. Tillerson has also publicly advocated a continentally integrated oil-and-gas energy sector, and has been a staunch supporter of Keystone XL, the $8-billion (U.S.) oil pipeline from Alberta that President Barack Obama rejected in 2015 but that Mr. Trump is expected to approve soon after he is sworn in.

"Keystone XL would do more than deliver oil from Alberta and North Dakota's Bakken shale to refiners on the Gulf Coast," he said at an industry conference in Houston last year. "It would improve U.S. competitiveness, increase North American energy security and strengthen the relationship with one of our most important allies and trading partners."

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Mr. Skinner cautioned that Mr. Tillerson would also bring conflict-of-interest baggage to the role. Mr. Tillerson's compensation package in 2015 amounted to $27.3-million and he holds 2.6 million Exxon shares valued at $228-million, according to Bloomberg.

As well, Mr. Skinner added, it would be simplistic to view thorny international issues through an energy lens alone.

"The Middle East is more than a source of oil," Mr. Skinner said.

Perhaps Mr. Tillerson's biggest coup as CEO was Exxon Mobil's joint-venture agreement with Rosneft, the state-controlled oil and gas giant, to produce oil from Russia's Arctic. Mr. Putin, the Russian President, bestowed the country's Order of Friendship in 2012 in gratitude. Mr. Tillerson is a vocal opponent of sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

Given allegations that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election on behalf of Mr. Trump by leaking e-mails that damaged Hillary Clinton – allegations that Mr. Trump has shrugged off – Mr. Tillerson's close ties to Moscow are bound to be controversial.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who sits on the foreign-relations committee that would oversee Mr. Tillerson's nomination hearing, is not impressed. "Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState," he tweeted.

But Mr. Tillerson's close Russian connections are exactly what Mr. Trump is looking for. "To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well," Mr. Trump told Fox News. "He does massive deals in Russia."

The choice of Mr. Tillerson would put to rest any hope that Mr. Trump's election rhetoric was just for show. His cabinet is purpose-built to work with the Republican Congress in carrying out the president-elect's agenda.

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About the Authors
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

Mergers and Acquisitions Reporter

Jeffrey Jones is a veteran journalist specializing in energy, finance and environment for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, based in Calgary. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2013, he was a senior reporter for Reuters, writing news, features and analysis on energy deals, pipelines, politics and general  topics. More

Jeff Lewis is a reporter specializing in energy coverage for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, based in Calgary. Previously, he was a reporter with the Financial Post, writing news and features about Canada’s oil industry. His work has taken him to Norway and the Canadian Arctic. More

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