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Could Massive Russian Oil Deal with Exxon Explain Why Putin Appears to Have Meddled in US Election?

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We continue our conversation about ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Donald Trump is expected to nominate for secretary of state. Speaking on “Face the Nation” Sunday, Sen. John McCain said Tillerson should be given a fair hearing but reiterated his concerns about Tillerson’s ties with Putin. One of the enormous deals that Vladimir Putin and Rex Tillerson worked on was a $500 billion oil exploration partnership between Exxon and the Russian government’s oil company, Rosneft. The Obama administration blocked the deal when it imposed sanctions against Russia for its intervention in the Ukraine. In a recent column for ThinkProgress titled “Trump, Putin, and ExxonMobil team up to destroy the planet,” Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, writes, “This deal could explain why Putin appears to have interfered in U.S. elections in favor of a Trump victory.” Romm goes on to say, “if the sanctions are lifted—something a new Secretary of State could help make happen—it would pay off big time for Exxon. … Imagine … if the oil giant is freed to produce and sell oil on the staggering 63.7 million acres of Russian land it leases, which is over 5 times the amount of land it leases in this country. Happy days are here again, for Exxon.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation about ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who Donald Trump is expected to nominate for secretary of state. Speaking on Face the Nation Sunday, Senator John McCain said Tillerson should be given a fair hearing, but reiterated his concerns about Tillerson’s ties to Vladimir Putin.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Maybe those ties are strictly commercial and got to do with his business in the oil business. Fine. But we’ll give him a fair hearing. But is it a matter of concern? Certainly, it should be a matter of concern. But I’m sure, in a bipartisan way, he’ll get a fair hearing. … It’s a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin—and, obviously, they’ve done enormous deals together—that that would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the enormous deals that Vladimir Putin and Rex Tillerson worked on was a $500 billion oil exploration partnership between Exxon and the Russian government’s oil company, Rosneft. The Obama administration blocked the deal when it imposed sanctions against Russia for its intervention in Ukraine. In a recent column for ThinkProgress headlined “Trump, Putin, and ExxonMobil team up to destroy the planet,” Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, writes, “This deal could explain why Putin appears to have interfered in U.S. elections in favor of a Trump victory.” Romm goes on to say, “if the sanctions are lifted — something a new Secretary of State could help make happen — it would pay off big time for Exxon. … Imagine … if the oil giant is freed to produce and sell oil on the staggering 63.7 million acres of Russian land it leases, which is over 5 times the amount of land it leases in this country. Happy days are here again, for Exxon,” Joe Romm writes.

Well, for more, we are joined by Joe Romm in Washington, D.C., who also is chief science adviser for Years of Living Dangerously. So, Joe Romm, for people who have no idea what this is about, this Rosneft deal and the sanctions and what it would mean if they’re lifted, please lay it out for us.

JOE ROMM: Sure. Well, Rosneft is the state oil company for Russia, and, under Putin, it has been acquiring more and more power and control over the oil industry. And it is now, you know, I believe, the world’s largest oil entity in the world. ExxonMobil is the world’s largest, you know, privately held oil company in the world. And, you know, we’re entering a period where it’s harder and harder to find oil. And as I write in Climate Progress, you know, ExxonMobil’s prospects for finding easy-to-find oil in this market were pretty dim, until this deal was struck between Tillerson and Putin, basically. And this deal would have created a $500 billion joint effort, you know, the biggest oil deal ever. It’s, you know, $500 billion. We’re talking half a trillion dollars. It’s a staggering amount of money. It was a deal that was perhaps going to ensure the future of a stream of oil for Exxon for decades to come, even, of course, as the world needs to get off of oil. For Putin, you know, this is critical revenue and critical outside investment, because, particularly now, in this era of low oil prices, that seriously hurts Putin. So this was considered to be a game changer. Rachel Maddow said, you know, this was a deal that was considered it might change the historical trajectory of Russia. Now, you know, Putin then invaded Crimea and interfered with Ukraine. As a result, the United States and most other civilized countries put in place sanctions. Those sanctions, in 2014, killed this deal.

And, you know, as I write in the piece, the question of—the intelligence community now says that Russia interfered in the election on behalf of Putin, that through leaks, through hacking private email accounts and releasing them—drip, drip, drip—and also we have reason to believe they’re one of the major promoters, disseminators of fake news. So, you know, one can understand the motivation. You know, some people said, “Hey, Putin has enough motivation just to, you know, cast doubt on the U.S. election.” But $500 billion, that is a very big motivation to mess up the U.S. election. So, this—

AMY GOODMAN: So—

JOE ROMM: Yeah?

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what could happen if Tillerson did become secretary of state.

JOE ROMM: Well, if Tillerson becomes secretary of state—and I also want to say the man has no qualifications to be secretary of state. It just deserves to be said. He’s worked for ExxonMobil his entire life. And I know we’ve entered this realm where we just elected Donald Trump president, who is unqualified, and he’s been naming a series of people who are unqualified for their job, but it just needs to be said. So, Tillerson has no qualifications for his job. And he—the deal that he was negotiating with Putin two years ago won him the highest order that Russia gives to a foreign citizen. So, he and Putin are very, very close. And as secretary of state, of course, he is our lead negotiator. He is the president’s top representative to every foreign government in the world. So here’s the signal it sends to the rest of the world: All that matters to the United States is oil and a friendly relationship with Putin. Now, you know, this is a totally, totally compromised secretary of state. It is absurd. In any sane, rational world, you know, this would just be round-the-clock pillory.

AMY GOODMAN: How could Tillerson decide about, for example, lifting the sanctions? What role would the secretary of state play, if he gets that job?

JOE ROMM: Well, so, let’s look at the sanctions from two different—there’s the U.S. sanctions, which the Obama can pretty much—I mean, which a President Trump can pretty much lift most of, himself. But then there’s all the other countries who have sanctions. And in order to make an economic deal between Exxon and Rosneft, Russia, work, you’re going to need not just allowing U.S. investment in the country, you’re going to have to allow Russia, you know, to make deals and sell oil with every other country. So, as secretary of state, he can simply make it his top priority to use the full leverage of the United States, in every deal, to benefit the oil industry, to benefit the U.S. oil industry, to benefit Rosneft, to benefit Putin. You know, it basically would be turning the U.S. State Department and the U.S. executive branch into what Russia is—a kleptocracy run by Putin and his gang to extract money and enrich themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Joe Romm, what about his own wealth? What about Rex Tillerson’s own wealth? He is the current CEO of Exxon. If he retires and becomes secretary of state, still his money is tied up in Exxon, in what happens to Exxon, what the secretary—what the State Department and other government agencies, how they relate to Exxon.

JOE ROMM: Yes. And he would presumably divest. He would presumably have to sell off, you know, his 100-plus million dollars’ worth of shares of ExxonMobil, and because of the way the law is written, he can do that tax-free. But I think it’s important to say that, you know, someone who has worked his life, all his life, at ExxonMobil, all the way up to the top of the company, is hardly going to be able to separate his interests and the interests of all of his close personal friends and family simply by divesting himself of the stock. He is ExxonMobil. And you should just see that on his forehead whenever you look at him.

AMY GOODMAN: Carroll Muffett, we just have a minute, but you’re seeing one agency head after another, one Cabinet member named after another, related to Exxon, in fact.

CARROLL MUFFETT: Yes. If you look at Jeff Sessions, he intervened in the investigations—

AMY GOODMAN: The attorney general nominee.

CARROLL MUFFETT: —of Exxon. If you look at Scott Pruitt, the nominee for EPA, he intervened in the investigation of Exxon by other state attorneys general. Then you add—you add Rex Tillerson. And on climate change, what we’re looking at is government of Exxon, by Exxon and for Exxon. But it’s really important to recognize that this is emblematic of a broader trend that we’re seeing in Trump’s nominations, where, in one agency after another, he has put people in charge of agencies that are patently hostile to both the agency itself and to the people and places those agencies are designed to protect. It’s looking to move us a hundred years backward in time and undo a hundred years of environmental and social progress.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Bill McKibben, one of his transition team representatives said today on one of the talk shows that this is a man who is very accomplished in business, so he’ll be reviewing the budget of the State Department and, you know, who should be there and who shouldn’t. We hear about the Department of Energy. Donald Trump just said he will be deciding very soon, after becoming president, what to do about the Dakota Access pipeline, which the Obama administration has said no to granting the final permit to, and the Keystone XL, which your group, 350.org, and so many others fought so hard, until Obama, the—President Obama said no to the Keystone XL. Finally, what does this mean, and how is 350.org organizing?

BILL McKIBBEN: 2016 is the hottest year in human history. And we’re going to have to make 2017 as politically hot as it is humanly possible to do. If people have been keeping their powder dry, waiting to come out and engage in peaceful protest, well, this is the moment. Everything is at risk, both in terms of our democracy and our planet. And so, we will organize at 350, just as people will organize all over the country. And we’ll do it not with complete confidence that we’re going to win; we’ll do it because we have to do it. And we will see what happens. This is one of those hinge moments in human history, and, actually, in planetary history, too. I’m not sure there’s never been one quite like it, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go—end with a clip from Fox News this Sunday, Donald Trump interviewed by Chris Wallace on the pipeline.

CHRIS WALLACE: Let me ask you a couple of specific questions. Will you still pull out of the Paris climate agreement, which has been signed by more than a hundred countries to reduce carbon emissions? Will you restart the Dakota Access pipeline, which the Army just stopped?

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: OK, let me not answer the Dakota, because perhaps that will be solved by the time I get there, so I don’t have to create enemies on one side or the other. But I will tell you, when I get to office, if it’s not solved, I’ll have it solved very quickly.

CHRIS WALLACE: Meaning you’re going to start it.

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: I’m not saying anything. I just say something will happen, and it’ll be quick. I think it’s very unfair. So, it’ll start, one way or the other.

CHRIS WALLACE: And Paris?

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: You’ll have a decision pretty quickly. And also the Keystone pipeline, you’re going to have a decision fairly quickly. And you’ll see that. Now, Paris, I’m studying. I do say this: I don’t want that agreement to put us at a competitive disadvantage with other countries. And as you know, there are different times and different time limits on that agreement. I don’t want that to give China or other countries signing agreements an advantage over us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Donald Trump yesterday on Fox News. We will wrap up there. And in our next segment, we’ll look back at the investigation by the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News into how ExxonMobil covered up its own knowledge of human-induced climate change. I want to thank Joe Romm of Climate Progress, Carroll Muffett of the Center for International Environmental Law and Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org. Stay with us.

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