On his first outing as Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson may have been quiet, but the world’s climate leaders were not. Ahead of the G20 meeting of foreign ministers, hosted by Germany in Bonn, German government officials didn’t mince words: “You can’t fight climate change by putting up barbed wire,” said Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a not-so-thinly veiled swipe at Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump’s climate denial, and the Trump Administration’s racist immigration policies.
Civil society showed up, too: Greenpeace unfurled a giant banner within view of the foreign ministers’ meeting venue, bearing the message “PLANET EARTH FIRST” and the hashtag #resist (already familiar from the previous Greenpeace banner action within spitting distance of the White House in the first week of Trump’s presidency).
Business voices also piled on to challenge Trump and Tillerson’s climate denial. Yesterday, just before the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting convened in Bonn, investors worth $2.8 trillion (yes, trillion, with a “T”) called on G20 countries to adopt an ambitious commitment: End fossil fuel subsidies and public finance for dirty energy projects by 2020 (full statement here).
Is this a subtle trolling of Tillerson, who lied openly during his Senate confirmation hearing by saying that U.S. oil and gas companies don’t get fossil fuel subsidies? After all, Exxon probably gets around $1 billion per year in U.S. government subsidies, and just last year, the Obama Administration submitted a list of subsidies handed out to the oil and gas industry as part of a peer review process under the G20, with China also participating. Both countries identified billions of dollars in subsidies, and stated their intention to end most of them. If Tillerson denies they exist, other G20 governments must be there to remind him that the era of fossil fuel dominance is gone, and that Tillerson’s new job is to represent the interests of the American people, not Big Oil.
The major investors’ statement on subsidies comes on the heels of a report released earlier in the week, which showed that eliminating just a portion of the subsidies to oil, gas, and coal companies could have the same climate impact as removing every airplane from our skies. Instead – for now – governments continue to line the pockets of fossil fuel executives, allowing zombie energy projects to lurch along, destroying our climate and harming our communities.
It’s not only subsidies to fossil fuel companies that Tillerson is clearly sensitive about: He also inexplicably banished reporters from his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (even over the objection of Lavrov). This secrecy comes in the wake of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s scandalous departure from the White House under allegations he was in contact with Vladimir Putin’s government ahead of the election, and then lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI.
We know Tillerson is a personal friend of Igor Sechin, the head of Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft, with which Tillerson’s ExxonMobil inked an enormous deal. That deal was later put on hold by U.S. sanctions resulting from the Russian invasion of Crimea – sanctions which Tillerson may now be in a position to help lift. Whether it’s about handouts to fossil fuel companies or Tillerson’s relationship to Russian officials, it seems Rex can’t handle being open and honest with the truth. But hiding in the shadows is not a good look.
It’s not just Tillerson who fears the light of Truth – clearly, his oil executive buddies prefer to do their business under the cover of secrecy, too. This week, President Trump signed a piece of legislation that illustrates just how close the oil industry is with the Trump Administration and the current GOP-led Congress. This law, originally proposed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, gutted transparency regulations requiring oil companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments.
The transparency measure, which Tillerson lobbied against furiously over the past decade as ExxonMobil CEO, would have helped protect the world’s poor from oil industry and government corruption, while imposing minimal costs on industry. Now it’s gone. Instead of the many things our government could be doing to help the American people, this gift to the oil industry was the top priority for Trump’s Administration and Congress. It was only the third piece of legislation signed by Trump, and it was the first use of the Congressional Review Act in 16 years. Score one for Tillerson’s ExxonMobil pals and Big Oil.
Other G20 governments can’t allow Tillerson to imperil the slow but important progress we’ve seen on fossil fuel subsidies in recent years. Under Germany’s leadership, this can be the year when world leaders update their 2009 commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by adding a deadline of 2020. It’s time for world leaders to finally put down the multitudes of dirty zombie energy projects trashing the climate, and let clean energy rise.