The Story Behind How Greenpeace Forced Rex Tillerson’s Public KXL Recusal

by Tim Donaghy

March 13, 2017

Last week, most people did not realize Exxon could stand to profit from the Keystone decision. In just 24 hours, the conflict of interest was pushed into the spotlight and the State Department announced publicly that Rex Tillerson had recused himself from the KXL decision.

Rex Tillerson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil testifies before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment during a hearing entitled "Drilling Down on America's Energy Future: Safety, Security, and Clean Energy" holds hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, Tuesday, June 15, 2010. ©Mannie Garcia/ Greenpeace

Mannie Garcia/Greenpeace

Early last Thursday morning, most people did not know that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s former employer ExxonMobil could stand to benefit from the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, therefore making Tillerson’s participation in the permit approval an ethical and possible financial conflict of interest. By Thursday evening, not only has that conflict of interest been laid to bare in national and global headlines, Tillerson’s State Department announced publicly for the first time that he had officially recused himself from the Keystone XL decision under the watchful eyes of the Office of Government Ethics.

How did this happen in the span of one news cycle? Thousands of people who are fed up with Trump’s cabinet of billionaire and corporate executives flooded the phone lines of federal ethics watchdog the Office of Government Ethics.

Now, the Office of Government Ethics may sound real nerdy, but let’s face it. The resistance has so far included rogue National Parks Twitter accounts, scientists copying climate data, and the writers of Teen Vogue — oh, and some badass climbers hanging a ‘RESIST’ banner near the White House.

This all started when Greenpeace realized the conflict of interest involved if Tillerson participated in the Keystone XL permit decision, about which the State Department has until March 27 to make a decision. Tillerson’s most recent employer, ExxonMobil, is heavily invested in tar sands production that would be served by the pipeline. Approval of Keystone XL would increase the value of tar sands oil sold on global markets, and hence the value of ExxonMobil’s tar sands assets.

As such, ExxonMobil stands to materially benefit from the approval of the pipeline granted by its former CEO Tillerson.

Last Wednesday morning, Greenpeace’s Executive Director Annie Leonard sent a letter to the OGE stating that “given OGE’s focus on prevention and their praise of Tillerson’s ethics commitments, the time is ripe for OGE to clarify exactly what those commitments mean in one of their first real tests and first real decisions Tillerson may take relating to his former employer.”

Around lunchtime on Thursday, thousands of people started calling the OGE, tying up their phone lines and sending a clear message that they were not going to put up with Exxon making decisions at the State Department. An online petition was also making the rounds on social media.

By around 6pm eastern time, the Office of Government Ethics responded with assurance from the State Department that Rex Tillerson would, in fact, recuse himself from “working on issues related to TransCanada’s application for a presidential permit for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.”

The office claimed he had made that decision in February, but this was clearly not just news to us, but to reporters at nearly every major news outlet.

Greenpeace isn’t quite finished with the Office of Government Ethics. We’re also requesting that the agency make public any information relevant to this decision, including any information about recusals, waivers requested or sought, and further ethics disclosures.

You can send a message right now asking the OGE for more transparency around not just this decision, but future ones involving conflicts of interest.

Since Trump’s cabinet is a walking conflict of interest, we will have to keep up with tactics like this to drag these violations into the spotlight and hold individuals accountable with the help of people willing to do whatever it takes, agencies and institutions whose job it is to keep government ethical, and allies in the media who can help tell the story around the world.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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