Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—a former CEO of the world's largest oil company—is under fire on Monday for setting aside his diplomatic duties on Sunday to accept a lifetime achievement award from the World Petroleum Congress is Istanbul, Turkey.
"Secretary Tillerson's warped notion that it's appropriate to attend and accept an award at an oil industry conference proves yet again that he has no idea how to be the United States’ chief diplomat," said Greenpeace USA senior climate campaigner Naomi Ages.
Addressing a room full of executives and government officials from around the globe, the former head of ExxonMobil said: "I miss all of you....I miss you as colleagues, I miss you as partners, I miss you as competitors."
Tillerson spent more than 40 years working in the fossil fuel industry before he was confirmed as President Donald Trump's secretary of state—in "a vote for climate disaster," as 350.org's May Boeve described it—earlier this year. He left ExxonMobil to lead the State Department just before being forced to retire from the company due to his age.
Tillerson has also been criticized for allegations that he allowed or enabled ExxonMobil to mislead investors and the general public about risks posed by climate change. In a massive investigative report that spans four decades, InsideClimate News found in 2015 that the company "conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then, without revealing all that it had learned, worked at the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed."
The former oil executive joined ExxonMobil in the mid-70s and became CEO in 2006. Celebrating his time at the helm of company, the WPC said:
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Tillerson...is being recognized for his "outstanding contribution to the oil and gas industry" with the highest honor of the World Petroleum Council, the Dewhurst Award. This distinguished lifetime achievement award celebrates his exceptional leadership of the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world over the past 10 years. Tillerson is only the tenth recipient of the Dewhurst Award in the history of the WPC.
The U.S.'s top diplomat said he found out about the award before accepting his Cabinet position, and also told his former oil industry comrades, "energy is fundamental to economic growth and prosperity, it's fundamental to lifting people out of poverty the world over," adding that it "requires massive investments over long periods of time and requires enormous risk-taking and risk management."
Prior to Tillerson's trip to Turkey to accept the award, he visited the Ukraine and attended the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, where he was the only U.S. official to accompany Trump to the president's infamous first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
Putin and Tillerson have a long history from Tillerson's days working for Big Oil. The Russian president gave Tillerson an Order of Friendship award in 2013 when, as ExxonMobil CEO, he signed a drilling deal with Rosneft, Russia's state-owned oil company. The deal was later put on hold due to U.S. sanctions enacted after Russia annexed Crimea, reportedly motivating Tillerson to visit the White House several times to lobby then-president Barack Obama to consider the cost of the sanctions.
In April, Common Dreams reported that ExxonMobil had applied for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Treasury to bypass sanctions to resume drilling with the Russian company. Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state, recused himself from all government decisions involving ExxonMobil, and the department denied ExxonMobil's request.