Tillerson had recused himself in February, the State Department acknowledged Thursday in a letter responding to Greenpeace USA’s demand that he do so. He has “committed to full compliance with his ethics obligations,” according to the the response, which was signed by the State Department’s deputy legal adviser, Katherine McManus.
President Donald Trump signed an order within days of his inauguration reviving the Keystone pipeline from Canada, which President Barack Obama had rejected over environmental concerns linked to high carbon emissions from Alberta oil sands production. Exxon has extensive business in Canada, including a majority stake in Imperial Oil Ltd., and owns the rights to oil sands projects that could take advantage of Keystone XL.
The State Department must approve the pipeline because it would cross an international border. In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry, with Obama’s backing, decided the pipeline wasn’t in the country’s national security interest because of the U.S. role as a global leader in efforts to fight climate change. A year earlier, the department had concluded the pipeline wouldn’t significantly contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions.
The State Department didn’t say why it hadn’t announced Tillerson’s recusal when it happened. Earlier in the day, Greenpeace began a campaign and petition drive demanding he not be involved in the permit process. When Trump signed the order on the Keystone permit in January, the State Department was given 60 days to make a decision, a timeline that expires in about two weeks.
As chief executive officer of Exxon, the world’s largest energy company by market value, Tillerson was a vocal advocate for Keystone, saying in a 2015 speech it would improve U.S. competitiveness and energy security.
“The delays and political machinations that have delayed the Keystone XL pipeline are the poster child for a much deeper problem hindering progress and advancement in this country,” he said in the speech, adding that the U.S. regulatory process was stifling innovation.
Greenpeace Climate Campaign Specialist Diana Best said in a statement responding to the recusal letter that Tillerson’s role “might have never been transparent to the public without people flooding the lines of the Office of Government Ethics today.”
“The people will have to continue to watch Trump’s cabinet of billionaires and corporate executives like hawks,” Best said.
(Adds Tillerson’s past comments on pipeline in seventh and eighth paragraphs.)