Rex Tillerson is the person America needs to lead the State Department
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Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHouse passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet With salami-slicing and swarming tactics, China's aggression continues MORE, chosen today by President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor's race Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump Schumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE to be secretary of State, is just what our country needs. I have personally seen Tillerson in action for nearly 30 years. As the chief executive of ExxonMobil, he is a strong leader with a track record of being tough in deals with Russia and getting results. This is what our country needs now more than ever.

In the fall of 1988, when Tillerson was the head of marketing for the company’s North America gas business, he gave me a one-on-one briefing on Exxon’s long-term view of North American natural gas markets. Ten years later, I did work for a U.S. government program to help Russian business associations learn to stand up for themselves to the Russian government.

When Tillerson worked in Exxon’s Russian subsidiary in the 1990s, I participated in consulting projects with the company in Russia related to improving local healthcare, navigating Russia’s convoluted customs system and spreading the economic benefit of Western investment to local Russian firms and individuals in their post-communist economic chaos.

I watched in person as Tillerson himself delivered a hard-hitting speech at a major Russian oil and gas conference in London in which he held no punches in criticizing Russia’s most senior government leadership for the political morass which was holding up huge energy projects. The speech was met with outrage by senior Russian officials for his blunt and honest criticism. He told it like it was, and they didn’t like it.

Russia at the time was on the verge of yet another political and economic collapse due to its bureaucracy, corruption and political chaos. Without getting its house in order, Tillerson told the Russians, the country risked losing tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment from companies like his that Russia desperately needed to lift its economy, energy industry and environmental practices up to modern global standards. Those were also key political priorities of the Clinton administration in that era and why then-Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreOn The Money: Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle | White House rules out gas tax hike Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax Overnight Energy: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale MORE helped broker the deal with Exxon and the Russian Federation to move Exxon’s Sakhalin 1 Project forward in the 1990s.


Tillerson’s blunt honesty was what the Russians needed to hear at the time. It was a message that many others in energy and political circles felt wasn’t politically correct. Yet Tillerson’s hard-hitting approach played an important role in pushing Russia off the dime. Russia subsequently passed legislation that set a clear revenue structure and modernized and clarified the environmental rules for the projects. Tillerson’s tough talk led to results, something we need now more than ever from our political leaders.

Finding the right balance between just saying what may not be politically correct, while navigating the increasingly sensitive world of energy and environmental issues, has been one of Tillerson’s hallmarks during his time as ExxonMobil CEO. He inherited the legacy of a company whose two previous CEOs were reclusive, prone to a “no comment approach” on controversial issues like climate change and avoiding engagement with those who held differing views. Tillerson steered the company toward a more progressive approach.

As a result, under Rex Tillerson’s leadership the new ExxonMobil is playing a key role in the legitimate debate around climate change taking a global, long term approach like the one Tillerson shared with me in 1988. That approach has included sending ExxonMobil scientists to participate in the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change, the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. At the same time, ExxonMobil has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to leading academic institutions like Stanford University for work on the subject under Tillerson’s leadership.

All of this while it would have been more politically correct to just go along with the rest of the herd jumping on bumper sticker solutions to the complicated questions on the role of human activity on climate change. Yet Tillerson led ExxonMobil to do just the opposite. It is now engaging its best scientists with those of often opposing views, supporting scientific collaboration. An approach we need far more of in today’s complicated world.

We need a secretary of State who understands how to deal strongly with the Middle East, Asia and the former Soviet Union, along with controversial environmental issues. We need a secretary of State who will deliver tough messages when necessary and has a proven track record of doing so, whether it is considered “politically correct” or not. We need one who will engage the rest of the world on issues like climate change from a data-driven collaborative approach, rather than an us-versus-them approach based on winning global bumper sticker popularity contests. That person is Rex Tillerson.

David Parish worked for ExxonMobil as a public affairs representative and consultant from 1988 through 2006, where he spent one-on-one time with the company’s last three chief executive officers. His book “Think Locally, Act Globally,” about today’s most vexing energy and resources issues, will be released by Greenleaf Book Group in 2017.

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