President-elect Donald Trump's plan to interview Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson on Tuesday trains the political spotlight on an Eagle Scout, Texan and unabashed oil proponent who has sparred with climate-change activists and conducted business with Russia President Vladimir Putin.
Tillerson's exit from Exxon would come after a tumultuous period for his company, punctuated by the loss of its AAA credit rating following the crushing global slide in oil prices. The company has made more than $200 billion in profit in the decade since Tillerson took over but posted a $1.7 billion loss in the second quarter, reflecting the depth of the oil industry's challenges. But Exxon, viewed for years as among the world's most resilient corporations, has since snapped back to profitability after slashing capital expenditures and mapping out a plan to ride out the storm.
The petroleum giant earned $16.1 billion last year, about half of what it had earned in each of the previous two years, the company's annual report shows.
Any examination of Tillerson as a potential Trump cabinet member is likely to focus primarily on his Republican politics rather than his company's finances. For starters,Putin awarded Tillerson the country's Order of Friendship in 2013 after years of collaboration. Trump has pledged to improve U.S. ties to Putin, who has bedeviled the past two American presidents with bouts of regional aggression.
The secretary of State is America's chief diplomat, emissary to world leaders and managing the nation's consulates and embassies. Although he has no experience in political diplomacy, Tillerson has extensive ties throughout the globe, based purely on Exxon's massive footprint, especially in geopolitically sensitive regions such as the Middle East and Russia.
"Energy is the lifeblood to economic growth," he told CNBC in March. "Middle East is a tough place right now, (with) a lot of wars on multiple borders that people are having to deal with. We continue to work successfully there in spite of that and have very good open relationships with the governments there."
But critics say Tillerson's position on climate change and deep entanglement in the global energy world make him a poor fit for the nation's leading diplomatic post.
"It really would blur the lines between the diplomatic priorities of the nation and the economic priorities of a corporation," said Tyson Slocum, energy program director for Public Citizen.
Exxon declined to comment for this story and declined to make Tillerson available for comment.
With U.S. allies fretting that the Trump administration will abandon the country's commitment to a global emissions-cutting agreement forged in Paris in 2015, Tillerson's appointment would place one of the oil industry's leading advocates in a position to undermine a deal viewed by the international community as critical to counteracting the devastating effects of a warming world.
To be sure, Exxon's official position is that climate change is a significant threat that must be addressed, placing Tillerson at odds with some of Trump's past statements. One example is Trump's claim that climate change warnings are a "hoax" perpetuated by China. And the company has supported a tax on carbon to help address climate change, a concept that may appeal to U.S. allies.
But Tillerson has also questioned scientific projections on global warming and asserted that technological advancements are the key to combating the threat. What's more, his company is currently facing an investigation by the New York attorney general over accusations that it failed to properly disclose the risks of climate change for years.
Tillerson told investors in May 2015 that he's "highly confident" that humans will be able to adapt to climate change if it continues unabated, saying "those solutions will present themselves as the realities become clearer," according to an earnings call transcript.
Those solutions could involve "different engineering accommodations along coastal areas" and "changing agricultural production," he said.
Tillerson's perspective is unrealistic because "in the absence of sharp emissions cuts, the challenges of adapting will be very severe," Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute, said in a June blog post. "As just three examples, loss of biodiversity, breakup of ecosystems and the rise in sea level will be large and essentially irreversible."
On human rights, where the secretary of State can influence countries in which oppression thrives, Tillerson's views on gay rights could be the subject of attention.
Exxon did not prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation until 2015, according to the Human Rights Campaign. That came only after having previously "rescinded basic workplace protections on the basis of sexual orientation and domestic partner benefits," the HRC said.
Exxon disputes HRC's findings, saying that it has always prohibited such discrimination.
Tillerson, a huge advocate of the Boy Scouts of America, also helped convince the Boy Scouts of America to admit gay youths while serving as the organization's president several years ago from 2010 to 2012, the Dallas Morning News reported in 2014.
The Boy Scouts of America told USA TODAY in a statement that Tillerson remains "a long-standing, valued member" of the group and its national executive board.
"He was instrumental in leading the organization through an important period of growth and development, while upholding the long-standing traditions of character and good citizenship that are essential to Scouting’s mission," the Boy Scouts said.
Tillerson is one of the nation's better-paid CEOs of Standard & Poor's 500 companies, with total compensation of $27.3 million last year, $33.1 million in 2014 and $28.1 million in 2013, according to company filings. That's more than double the median compensation for Standard & Poor's 500 companies, found the Equilar/Associated Press S&P 500 CEO Pay Study released this year.
Contributing: Matt Krantz
Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil
Education: Bachelor's in civil engineering from the University of Texas in 1975.
Career history: Joined Exxon in 1975; positions have included production engineer, president of Exxon Yemen, executive vice president in charge of upstream development projects, senior vice president, president.
2015 compensation: $27.3 million.
Interests: Has served in various director capacities at the American Petroleum Institute, Boy Scouts of America, United Negro College Fund, Business Roundtable, Ford's Theatre.
Family: Married with four children.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
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