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How Running ExxonMobil Did (And Didn't) Prepare Rex Tillerson For Secretary Of State

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How Running ExxonMobil Did (And Didn't) Prepare Rex Tillerson For Secretary Of State

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How Running ExxonMobil Did (And Didn't) Prepare Rex Tillerson For Secretary Of State

How Running ExxonMobil Did (And Didn't) Prepare Rex Tillerson For Secretary Of State

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New Yorker writer Steve Coll says that though Tillerson has conducted billion-dollar international deals as an oil executive, he has no government experience.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President-elect Donald Trump has generated plenty of news and controversy with his cabinet picks. And, today, we're going to focus on his nominee for secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Tillerson is the CEO of ExxonMobil where he's worked his entire career.

At a time when climate change is an important global issue, Tillerson has spent years advancing the interests of a fossil fuel company that has at times aggressively funded attacks on climate change science. And at a time when U.S. relations with Russia are strained and intelligence officials say Russia sought to influence the presidential election, Tillerson's been deeply involved in Exxon's oil-drilling projects in Russia, and he has a personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin.

Our guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker reporting on issues of intelligence and national security in the U.S. and abroad. In 2012, he wrote a book about ExxonMobil called "Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power." He's written six other books and is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Steve Coll, welcome back to the show. Rex Tillerson has worked at ExxonMobil his whole life. Tell us a bit about the corporate culture at ExxonMobil. What distinguishes it from other companies?

STEVE COLL: Well, of the oil companies that descended from Standard Oil - the monopoly that John Rockefeller built up at the turn of the 20th century - ExxonMobil is closest to the original in the way it operates and in its culture and values. Rockefeller famously blended a - an ardent Protestant faith with a ruthless, capitalist ethos, and there's a lot of that echo at ExxonMobil today. Former officials when I was researching "Private Empire," the book about the corporation, would say that as recently as the 1970s, it wasn't uncommon at ExxonMobil to open just a business meeting with a prayer.

And there's still a strong focus on business competition and performance above all else. I think part of that is about the stability of the oil industry. ExxonMobil's one of the few corporations left in the United States where you really can work cradle to grave, and they operate that way. They recruit out of graduate schools focused on oil engineering and related skills.

And then there's a sort of upper-out threshold five to seven years into your career. If you want to stay, you've got to get used to Exxon's rules and its very tight, internal culture. Everything is in a rule book, and you're expected to follow it. But if you do stay, you can stay for 30 years, retire with a defined benefit pension and and live quite comfortably.

BYLINE: Yeah. Rex Tillerson himself was an engineering student at the University of Texas, right? You mentioned corporate rules. What kind of rules?

COLL: Well, there's a document or a binder in every employee's office notoriously referred to as OIMS. I think it's - botched the acronym, but it essentially is an operating manual for your job. And it could be hundreds of pages, and it provides instruction, guidance for how you do everything from contract for pencils to park your car to negotiate terms to speak to the press - or in most cases not speak to the press. And it's a very engineering-led culture.

So these are all folks who basically think there's an answer to the problem that arises from the way you work in drilling fields. How do you build wells? How do you get oil out of the ground? How do you build the pipeline? And also financial engineering - how do you measure returns on huge investments that they make in projects? Project engineering - how do you make sure you get on time and on budget?

So these are very linear processes. They're all written down and documented. It's a global corporation, so they have employees working all over the world and part of the purpose of the rule book is to make sure that somebody taking on a project in Indonesia or in West Africa does it the same way they would if it were in Alaska or in Texas.

BYLINE: OK. So Rex Tillerson, if confirmed, will be secretary of state, and he has a lot of experience in international business. Give us a sense of the scale of Exxon's international reach and, you know, the extent to which it could be regarded as a player on the level of a nation state.

COLL: Well, I think it is a player on the level of a nation state. As I was researching the way it operates around the world, I came to think of it that way through interviews with leaders and competitors and employees in diverse countries. And then as I got to know ExxonMobil even better at its headquarters, I came to understand it's not just an outsider who might think of it this way. That's actually the way they see themselves. They see themselves as an independent sovereign in the world motivated by their devotion to their shareholders and their shareholders' interests.

And they have the scale of a sovereign nation. They operate in more than 100 countries. The number varies from time to time. Their revenue before the oil price collapsed was in the order of $400 billion a year. And now it's more like 300, but that's still the size of the economy of South Africa. And they, I think, operate independently in a sense of foreign policy as well. That is they see their role in the diverse countries where they work as entirely independent, for example, of U.S. foreign policy. And they make decisions on the basis of what's best for ExxonMobil shareholders not what's best for the United States.

BYLINE: Are there clear examples where Exxon's interest propelled them to a foreign policy in opposition to American foreign policy?

COLL: Yes. I've mentioned two fairly recently during the Obama administration. So in Iraq, it was the policy of the United States government to promote national unity by encouraging international corporations and oil corporations to do their business with the central government in Baghdad to prevent fragmentation of an already stressed Iraqi state. But ExxonMobil decided to do independent business with the Kurdish regional government which basically said pay no attention to Baghdad. Come on over here. We'll give you a better deal. And ExxonMobil did that under Tillerson's leadership without consulting with the Obama administration in advance, and it was a big deal as a departure from the effort to get everyone to concentrate on Baghdad. And after they made their announcement, he scheduled a phone call with the State Department, and basically said, look, I had to do what was best for my shareholders and this was my judgment.

A second more recent example involves Russia where after sanctions were imposed on the Russian government, the Obama administration tried to discourage corporate leaders from attending certain economic conferences that Vladimir Putin's government hosted. And Tillerson went anyway. And it wasn't a violation of sanctions or anything, but it was a symbolic defiance of what the Obama administration was trying to achieve.

BYLINE: You know, you write that an oil company needs stability in the places it operates. It - drilling wells is expensive. It takes decades to get the return from them, so they want places that will be stable. So they have to - so Exxon has dealt with a lot of authoritarian regimes, some of which, you know, are ruled by dictators who enrich themselves. What's Tillerson's record when it comes to dealing with those kinds of governments?

COLL: Well, he's been successful at making arrangements with authoritarian governments in many places in the world, certainly in Vladimir Putin's Russia, in West Africa, in Equatorial Guinea, in Chad and in other places across the Middle East. In Qatar, they have a strong presence, and elsewhere in the Gulf states, ExxonMobil's very active. You know, they also operate in more raucous environments.

But, generally, they've had better success economic and business success in environments that are stable because of authoritarian government than in a place like Alaska where Tillerson has repeatedly expressed frustration that ExxonMobil can't get stable terms to the deals it wants to make because the government keeps changing. Well, that's because we have elections in Alaska, and politics of oil up there are pretty - you know, pretty raucous. So I'm not saying that that means he's anti-democratic, but I am just saying he's been conditioned by experience to work productively and without a lot of criticism or interference in politically authoritarian environments.

BYLINE: You know, there are a lot of decisions that companies that work in - with authoritarian regimes have to make. And it's one thing to say, well, we're not going to, you know, seek the overthrow of an authoritarian regime. But there are other decisions you can make. You can participate in bribing officials or facilitating, you know, the extraction of large amounts of assets for the - for royal families. Do you have any sense of how Exxon and Tillerson's - any sense of their record in terms of the extent to which they violate things like the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act? And what's their...

COLL: They're - they're...

BYLINE: ...What's their record of integrity in that area?

COLL: Well, we talked before about their rulemaking and their adherence to rules. And I do think that they use the law as a - as an organizing principle everywhere. And they're very - very devoted to trying to figure out how not to get outside of the law and also to promote the rule of law internationally because that aids their business model in the sense that it makes contracts enforceable. And it also gives them a way to avoid the kinds of dilemmas that are presented when dictators' relatives come around looking for contracts or for favors. ExxonMobil can say, hey, we follow the law everywhere. This is not legal. We're not going to do it. And so it's a way to be consistent. You know, where it gets more subtle is outside of the direct corruption of enabling capital flight or taking payoffs or making payoffs.

You know, what do you do in these societies while you're there to promote better humanitarian conditions, better governance? Are you willing to take any risks to call out a host government on its domestic conduct, on its imprisonment of political-opposition figures, its suppression of journalists or human rights activists? There, ExxonMobil is very cautious on the whole. They have incorporated human rights principles in their own operations, their own security procedures. They were slow to do that, but they've done it quite thoroughly. But when it comes to trying to use their influence in a place like Chad to create different politics, better politics, they steer away from that. They tend to do relatively uncontroversial projects, like, say, promotion of public health, which is good but is sort of apolitical.

BYLINE: Steve Coll is a staff writer at The New Yorker. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Steve Coll. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker, reporting on issues of intelligence and national security in the U.S. and abroad. He's also the author of the 2012 book "Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power." We're talking about the nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. Tillerson has no diplomatic experience, but he's had a lot of experience as a - as a deal-maker in other countries. Has that honed skills that will be useful to him as secretary of state, do you think?

COLL: Sure. I mean, the secretary of state has lots of different functions, but some of them - the day-to-day work - are quite similar to what Tillerson has done for 10 years at ExxonMobil. These include negotiating with foreign leaders about complicated subjects. They include digesting lots of political analysis, intelligence, and trying to figure out what's true, what's not, what it means for how to proceed. ExxonMobil has its own, essentially foreign policy apparatus at the headquarters - political analysts, intelligence analysts, some former U.S. intelligence and foreign policy-makers - who replicate the kind of inbox that you'd get as secretary for aiding decision making. And attending ceremonial events, he's done plenty of that. And assessing foreign leaders, trying to figure out how to get under their skin or how to get them to some place you want to move them - all of that is relevant.

But here's the other half of the job. That involves not deals, but ideas. And it involves the diplomatic service of the United States, which is a career service spread out all over the world and which not only negotiates across the street with the host government, but also delivers and defines the aid, the resources that the United States provides in that country, whether it's support for local human rights groups or democracy organizers or whether it's through USAID, new technologies to help free speech and free organizing in authoritarian countries. You know, the United States is often the last outpost in faraway places for dissidents or minority religions or investigative reporters who come under pressure.

And so the diplomatic service, the career service that he'll now lead, that's their ethos. That's why they came into the United States government in many cases. That's what they do out there, distributed across all these embassies and consulates. And so the odd fit is not the kind of tactical deal-making part. There, he's well suited. It's the, what does he think about all of this. He's never - he has no record of writing about these foreign policy issues from an American perspective as opposed to an Exxon perspective.

BYLINE: And do we know anything about Rex Tillerson's views about, you know, the major conflicts in the world - you know, NATO, Israel and Palestine - or about his views of the use of American power?

COLL: Not much about the ones you just listed. I think the other tactical issue that's certainly going to come up in his confirmation hearings involves sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy. So ExxonMobil has long lobbied against sanctions, both in principle and in lots of specific cases. They're opposed to them, Tillerson sometimes says, because he doesn't think they're very effective. But, of course, it doesn't take a lot of cynicism to see that ExxonMobil opposes them because they undermine ExxonMobil's business opportunities. And he has - ExxonMobil, in various stages, has argued against sanctions not only in Russia, which will be a controversy during the confirmation, but also previously in Iran and in Iraq - in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

They just basically don't want the United States to pressure other governments by constricting business opportunities. And it would be surprising if he came to office now, turning around and saying, actually, sanctions are an alternative to war that we really ought to prioritize and refine how to make them more effective. It's possible that he'll take that turnaround view, but it would be a real departure from ExxonMobil's policies.

BYLINE: And what do we know about his beliefs about global warming and his record on climate change regulation?

COLL: Well, ExxonMobil has, as a corporation, a pretty miserable record on climate change. They, during the 1990s and early 2000s, funded groups led by non-scientists to promote the idea that climate science was unreliable. And they've continued, from time to time, to support groups that continue to undermine climate science, even without scientists in the lead. But Tillerson's ascension to the top job in 2006 marked a change in the way ExxonMobil communicated about climate and climate science issues.

He inherited this portfolio from his predecessor, Lee Raymond, who was a really ardent climate skeptic - very outspoken. At one point in 2000, he said publicly he thought it was more likely the world would get cold than it would get warm. He just didn't believe the science. And he really put ExxonMobil way out in front on this issue. It wasn't really an existential issue for ExxonMobil whether or not there would be a price on carbon. But Lee Raymond treated it as if it were.

And so Tillerson came in. And he has said that he wanted to kind of reset ExxonMobil's communications about this. And he did. He started talking about climate in a different way. Yes, the risks are there. They're serious. We should take them seriously. Then in 2009, when it looked like there was a possibility that Congress might actually pass climate regulation in the form of a cap and trade bill that would impose a price on carbon fuels, Tillerson came out and said, I oppose that method of cap and trade because it's too complicated. But I now support a tax - a carbon tax. Twenty dollars a ton was what he said at the time, I think.

And that was a big change. At least now they were saying that they, in theory, supported policies that would price carbon in order to reduce the risks of climate change. The problem is that seven years have passed. ExxonMobil really hasn't done anything to advance that position. And though they make statements taking note of how serious the international response to climate risks has become and they don't actively rhetorically oppose agreements like the recent one at Paris, they really seem to just be stepping back and not leading in this area.

BYLINE: You know, in discussing his worldview, he said a few years ago his favorite book is the Ayn Rand novel "Atlas Shrugged." Not everybody remembers that. What - what does that tell us about his worldview?

COLL: Well, that 1957 novel - sort of dystopian novel - has become a kind of touchstone for libertarians and skeptics of states - state power, government. It's often cited by folks who really think the government is the problem and that what's really required is individual initiative, individual virtue.

And so yes, it's a very specific choice to have listed. It was in response to a question, I believe from a Boy Scout magazine, as to what his favorite book was. And he listed that one. So I think he comes to Washington not just as an outsider in his career, having never held a government position or served the United States government in that way, but maybe an outsider also in his mind about how effective the U.S. government is as an instrument of the interests of the American people.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Steve Coll about Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, who is now Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state. Coll is the author of a book about ExxonMobil and wrote a recent article about Tillerson in The New Yorker. After a break, they'll talk about how U.S. sanctions against Russia have affected ExxonMobil's interests there, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will remember some of the great jazz musicians we lost this year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Steve Coll about Rex Tillerson, who is Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state. Tillerson is the CEO of ExxonMobil. Coll is the author of a book about ExxonMobil and wrote a recent article in The New Yorker headlined, "Rex Tillerson: From A Corporate Oil Sovereign To The State Department." Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

BYLINE: So Tillerson's relationship with Russia and his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin is certainly an issue as people discuss this nomination. How long has he - has Tillerson been representing Exxon in Russia?

COLL: Well, Exxon started to negotiate a deal that still is going on in Russia as far back as 1996. And Tillerson was certainly involved in the late '90s and early 2000s as he rose through the corporation toward becoming CEO. So really, I think, it's fair to say he's been in Russia for 20 or more years in and out.

And when Putin came to power in 2000, that was the main partner that he needed to deal with and, certainly, during his time as CEO has dealt with extensively leading up to, you know, big agreements announced as recently as 2011, 2012 to explore in the Arctic - the Russian Arctic - a deal that had at least a top-line potential of $500 billion. So in short, he's been there for at least two decades.

BYLINE: So give us a sense of the scale of Exxon's business interests and dealings with the Russian government.

COLL: Well, I don't think they're decisive to ExxonMobil, but they have managed to do what a lot of international oil corporations have not which is to stay through all kinds of political weather. They have two big projects out in Siberia off the coast of Siberia that they partnered with Russian entities to carry out. And what Exxon brought to the table was advanced drilling and project management technology that could work in really, really harsh weather. You know, Russia has a lot of oil. It has a lot of mature oil fields that have been around for decades and decades. Russia doesn't need outside help with those. The next frontier for Russian oil production is in tough places toward the Arctic or out in Siberia, so that's what brought ExxonMobil in.

But then what happens in Russia is that if you - if you're not careful, you'll get your lunch stolen. And a lot of corporations that have come in and done deals in the Putin era have ended up having to exit because of various conflicts with Russian tax authorities or different Russian oil interests that were close to Putin and got crosswise with the outsiders. And somehow Exxon has managed to hang in there, stay close to Putin, stay close to a guy named Igor Sechin who is the chief executive of Rosneft now, but was one of the original kind of hard men around Putin and has been critical to Putin's government really since it began.

BYLINE: Rosneft is one of the Russian oil companies, right? And what do we know about his personal relationship with Putin?

COLL: Well, not a ton, to be honest. I mean, we know they spent a lot of time together. They've successfully negotiated very complex, very ambitious agreements. We know that Igor Sechin has been a very important part of their relationship. We know that Tillerson is willing to demonstrate that he will defy the United States government by attending conferences that the Obama administration doesn't want him to go to. And one can imagine that a certain intimacy has built up over this long record of negotiations with a single leader in Putin.

But what the real flavor of that is, I mean - it's behind closed doors. Neither the Russians nor ExxonMobil makes any of that transparent. An interesting question that may surface during the confirmation hearings is that Tillerson has had personal ties with two targets of American intelligence collection for a long time - Putin and Sechin. And anyone who knows how the world works would be aware that every conversation you have in Russia with either of those gentlemen is likely to be recorded both by the Russian government to use it against you if they can somehow and by the U.S. government to try to figure out what's going on and maybe by other governments as well.

So I'm assuming that Tillerson has been smart enough over the years to manage his conversations and his presence in Russia with that in mind as if he were in a fishbowl, even though nobody else in the world knows exactly what was said. In fact, there are probably transcripts in both governments of many of these meetings. And so if he's made mistakes, if he's made terrible judgments from the perspective of a future secretary of state, it's possible that that will surface because there are plenty of bureaucrats in the U.S. system who would have had access to that material.

BYLINE: I don't know - this is speculative - but can you imagine a way in which some of this information might come out?

COLL: I think it would only come out on the U.S. side. I don't think the Russians have any motivation to put it out. They would much rather have someone they know, someone they've had successful negotiations with in power in Washington. Even if Tillerson becomes unfriendly to them on policy matters now that he's a public leader, at least they know how to deal with him and they have a record with him now. On the U.S. side, I think it would only come out if in that material there is something truly disturbing from the perspective of the candidate's judgment or his willing to accommodate Russian behavior that is, you know, outside the lines.

BYLINE: And as the Senate considers his nomination - I mean, this does have to be approved by the Senate. Will they be able to talk to U.S. intelligence officials about any of this material?

COLL: Yeah. I mean, they - the Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee can certainly ask questions. But the bureaucracies will make their own decisions about what's relevant, what's proper to share under U.S. law, how to summarize what they found. So there are regular channels. There are irregular channels, you know, how our system works. Journalism figures in that as well.

But I think the bigger question that he's going to face a confirmation is going to come from senators like John McCain and other strong skeptics of Putin and Russia's foreign policy. They're going to want to know are your views as a public leader profoundly different from your actions as ExxonMobil CEO in accommodating these - this government? And if so explain yourself. So what do you think about the independence of Ukraine or the future of Ukraine? What do you think about the expansion of NATO that has brought the United States into solemn commitments to the independence of the Baltic states and vulnerable states in central and southeastern Europe? What do you think about Syria? What do you think about Russia's conduct in the Syrian civil war, these barbarian bombing campaigns deliberately targeting physicians and ambulances? How does human rights figure in American foreign policy in your mind?

I mean, McCain is strong on global human rights as anyone in the Democratic Party. So, you know, there are issues of bipartisan foreign policy that really are uncomfortable when you overlay them with ExxonMobil's place in the world. And Tillerson has no record of speaking about that, so that's going to be, I'm sure, drawn out during his confirmation hearings.

BYLINE: Steve Coll is a staff writer at The New Yorker. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Steve Coll. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker reporting on issues of intelligence and national security in the U.S. and abroad. He's also the author of the 2012 book "Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power."

ExxonMobil has some huge deals with Russia for drilling in Siberia, you mentioned, in the Arctic regions as, you know, the melting polar ice cap offers more access to oil deposits up there. When sanctions were imposed on Russia after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 - international economic sanctions - what impact did that have on Exxon's projects with Russia?

COLL: It had an impact. It stopped them from going forward with this big framework agreement that they had signed with Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, to explore, as you say, in the Arctic taking advantage of the - particularly, the summer ice melt up there. So it meant that they had to stop business that they had committed to carrying out. And ExxonMobil publicly opposed the sanctions citing its long-standing and generalized belief that sanctions don't work. So yeah, it had a - it had an impact.

BYLINE: So to be clear, I mean, Exxon has these huge, you know, multi-hundred billion-dollar projects in Russia that are affected by sanctions. The question is will Tillerson seek relief from those sanctions, which the company he spent his whole career at wants or does he take a different approach?

COLL: It's very hard to imagine that Trump and Tillerson working together would have the political space in the U.S. to go upend sanctions without some major set of concessions on Russia's side. And yet, it's a situation without precedent to have a Republican president who is, essentially, if not pro-Russian, remarkably accommodating of a Russian dictator and a secretary of state who has never served in the government, never written in a foreign-policy journal about great power relations or the U.S. relationship with Russia but whose entire experience has been in business negotiations with the Russian state and its offshoots in the oil industry.

So yeah, I think when you talk about appearances of conflict of interest, you can talk about it as an ethicist or as a lawyer in the White House counsel's office, but there's a broader picture here which is where are we going with Russia? And where is this leadership - what is it thinking about the kind of relationship that it wants the United States to have with Putin? And how much is it willing to accommodate Putin in the world?

BYLINE: You know, when you wrote the book "Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power," he did not grant you interviews, but you spent a lot of time talking to people who knew him. You asked him some questions at news conferences. I'm just wondering what sense you got of him and his - is he smart? Is he thoughtful? Is he rigid or open-minded?

COLL: He's smart. He's thoughtful. He's comfortable in his own skin. He's a good communicator. He can take a lot of questions and bat them around. He's used to being in front of audiences. He's used to answering questions. But I've been thinking about this because ExxonMobil is such a controlled environment that when they put him out in front of audiences or he goes to the Council on Foreign Relations and gives a prepared speech and then takes five questions - generally, pretty friendly - you know, that's an environment that he thrives in. And I think, behind closed doors, he must be very effective.

I've been at private dinners at think tanks where he's appeared. You know, he's at ease. He can talk with lots of different people about lots of different subjects. He doesn't come across as overbearing or, you know, sort of, arrogant. But he has never confronted the kind of uncontrolled questioning and impertinent questioning that a secretary of state has to face, not just all those ornery reporters in the back of your plane everywhere you fly asking you everything that might be newsworthy for their organizations. But, you know, the secretary of state - almost distinctively among those cabinet jobs - they fly all over the world, and they stand in front of the local press. They stand with the leader in front of all kinds of local activists. They meet with the opposition party. They wander around the embassy. And, you know, the career diplomatic service - these people are not always deferential to their leaders. They are independent minded themselves. They'll speak up. This is not Exxon's way. You don't speak up and call the - question the boss's fundamental assumptions in front of an audience.

But this is what secretaries of state deal with all the time. And you look at the experienced ones, the ones who have been around this as politicians - John Kerry is a pretty good example - I mean, that stuff is just like rain off his back. He's so used to being under that kind of scrutiny and to taking unfriendly or bizarre questions from time to time. So it will be very interesting, if he is confirmed, to watch how he comes out of the very controlled environment of ExxonMobil into the raucous world of transparent politics.

BYLINE: One more question on the subject of potential conflicts of interest - you know, it has been American policy to battle the effects of climate change. We don't know how that will - what that will look like under the Trump administration. But if ExxonMobil is undertaking to drill in the Arctic and areas where, you know, sea ice is melting and pursuing, you know, a policy that presumes many decades of use of fossil fuels, does that put him, potentially, at odds with an important policy goal of the United States?

COLL: Well, I suppose it depends on what President Trump's policy goal is. But, you know, absolutely - he's made plain over his leadership of ExxonMobil, notwithstanding the adjustments in public policy and communication that he has overseen that essentially he's inclined to think, OK - there is a risk of climate change. It's a serious risk. We get it. We're at the table. We're listening. We're talking. But we don't want to do anything to prevent the development of global energy, including fossil fuel energy, that would somehow deprive, say, developing societies of burning all the coal they need to fire up electricity and deliver electricity to poor areas and so on and so forth.

And then when you get to the climate risk subject, he's given answers from time to time where he says, well, look, OK - even if it is serious, we're engineers. We'll adapt. We'll find a way out of this. And that is the school of thought that, you know, used to be a little bit more prominent than it is today, which is kind of adaptation as the solution. Who knows what that adaptation is? Not, presumably, higher seawalls but some kind of technological magic bullet that resolves all of this rather than preventing it in the first place.

Now, on the diplomacy of climate change today, the problem that the Trump administration is going to confront is that the Paris Accord represents a true international consensus about the seriousness of the problem and pathways to address it before we get to catastrophic temperature change. And if the United States essentially tries to undermine that or walk away from it, as Trump has occasionally threatened and as ExxonMobil's record would suggest Tillerson would be inclined to do, all it's going to lead to is isolation because really this question of climate risk in the world - it's a settled political issue.

Only in the United States and Australia do you still have science deniers in such prominent roles. And if you want leverage in Europe, if you want leverage in the developing world, you'd better be engaging around this in a serious way. The Trump administration may decide that's just not their priority. They'll walk away, let it die by a thousand cuts or even more actively try to undermine it. But if Tillerson is the pragmatist that his friends and allies say that he is, he's going to want to take a hard look at where this consensus leads in terms of international politics and American influence.

BYLINE: Well, Steve Coll, thanks so much for speaking with us.

COLL: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Steve Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of the 2012 book, "Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter.

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