Fossil Fuel CEOs Say They Just Want to Lift People Out of Poverty. Do You Believe Them?

Rex Tillerson

In a 2013 interview about the risks and rewards of oil exploration, Charlie Rose asked then Exxon CEO (and now Secretary of State) Rex Tillerson if his philosophy was “Drill, baby, drill!” 

Tillerson replied that his philosophy was “to make money.” At the same time, during his tenure as CEO of ExxonMobil, he also discussed how energy companies are eager to help lift the developing world out of poverty — a slightly different perspective.  

What you got to remember is that there are people out there that still don’t have electricity, they don’t have running water, they can’t refrigerate medicines, they can’t refrigerate food,” Tillerson told the crowd at the University of Texas VIP Speaker Series in 2016. “… they would like to have access to energy.”

For years the coal industry has also pushed the idea that it is motivated by a desire to help people in developing countries by providing them with coal-powered electricity. A viewing of John Oliver’s recent piece on the coal industry and its focus on some industry CEOs — along with their less-than-stellar history of prioritizing the safety and well-being of workers over profits — doesn’t really make that believable. 

The track record of the industry certainly looks like a group focused more on making money than helping lift the developing world out of poverty. 

In May the Washington Post ran an article about Tillerson and Exxon’s experience in the African country Equatorial Guinea with the title, “How our incoming secretary of state helped to enrich Africa’s nastiest dictatorship.” It points out how Exxon and a small group of elites made a lot of money producing oil there while “nearly two-thirds of the population lives in extreme poverty.” The rest of the article is well worth a read. 

Under Tillerson, State Department Proposes Cuts to Aid for Developing Countries

With Rex Tillerson leading the State Department, it isn’t surprising that the policies might be pro-fossil fuels. As reported by DeSmog recently, Tillerson was at the signing of a new agreement between ExxonMobil and the state-owned Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) regarding a Gulf of Mexico natural gas refinery.  

And Tillerson is certainly not the only former fossil fuel executive or lobbyist in the Trump administration. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross owned several coal mines. In addition, Jeffrey Bossert Clark was nominated recently to be the top environmental lawyer at the Justice Department. Not only is Clark a climate denier, his previous work includes representing BP in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. These are just a few examples in what is a long list. 

However (and also probably not surprising), despite all of these fossil fuel champions in the Trump administration, it seems the industry rhetoric about wanting to bring electricity to the world to “lift people out of poverty” appears to be nothing more than, well, rhetoric. 

Not only has Trump proposed a budget that would slash funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the proposal also includes rolling the civilian foreign aid agency into Tillerson’s State Department. According to its website, “USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.”

In 2016, a week after Trump was elected, USAID announced it was funding eight solar companies in Africa. Companies that Tillerson should love — based on his comments — because the focus is on bringing solar energy to communities with no electricity.

But apparently the fossil fuel industry only approves of this concept if oil, gas, and coal are providing the electricity. 

Additionally, Trump recently mocked the Green Climate Fund, which is a United Nations financial mechanism for helping developing nations reduce and adapt to climate change impacts. Trump said: “Yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called ‘green climate fund' — nice name — which calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries.” He has promised to cut that funding as well. 

And Now the Good News

A recent New Yorker article by 350.org’s Bill McKibben takes an in depth look at the work of those solar start-ups funded by USAID. While the start-ups have benefited from that money, the companies also are attracting big venture capitalists — who may be philanthropists — or who may share Tillerson’s philosophy “to make money” and see an opportunity to make more. 

The potential and opportunity for energy companies of any kind in Africa are huge. It was estimated in 2014 that more than half of the 1.06 billion people in the world without access to electricity live in Africa. And the fossil fuel industry knows that could mean a lot of money if it can get there first. 

With the many variables involved, the outcome of the race to power Africa certainly isn’t clear. Especially since one of the players is the fossil fuel industry and they have a history of winning.

However, in McKibben’s article, he points out a real shift in the way solar power is viewed in Africa today. He quotes a U.S. Trade and Development Agency official, who says, “African leaders used to think solar was being pushed on them but now they all want solar.”

In the article, McKibben notes that many people without electricity in Africa currently use kerosene fuel for their lighting sources. Thanks to some of these solar start-ups, they can now get better lighting for the same cost by using solar panels. That's a direct switch from fossil fuels to solar power, with improved performance. 

The way the Trump administration is working right now, it appears to be stacking the global deck so that fossil fuels will be the dominant energy source for decades to come. Obviously, this would be devastating to the goal of keeping a stable climate. 

At the same time, renewables may be a cheaper and healthier solution to bring electricity to the billion people in the world who don’t currently have it. In the end, it won’t be environmental forces that drive these changes but economic ones. 

Africans want electricity. But they want it at the best price. And if solar can do that, it has a real shot at filling that need.

Someone whose philosophy is simply “to make money” should understand that only too well. 

Main Image: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Credit: Department of State, public domain