Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory

If there ever was the sound of a doomsday clock chiming midnight, the signal moment probably occurred last fall, though the alarm went almost unnoticed by the press. In October, major observatories across the world simultaneously recorded that atmospheric carbon levels globally breached what has long been considered the “redline” of 400 parts per million and are likely to keep rising inexorably for the foreseeable future. The 400 parts per million mark has long been considered, even by climate optimists, a fatal tipping point, beyond which there is little hope of return.

One person who probably did take note, however, was Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson. I don’t know if Tillerson cracked an evil grin at the time, but I’m sure he must have felt that this grim milestone validated his strategic thinking for the past ten years as mastermind of the world’s largest oil conglomerate.

Despite what you may have heard from the Sierra Club, Rex Tillerson is not a climate change denier. He is something far more dangerous. Tillerson knows climate change is taking place. He was in position to possibly do something about it, evaluated his options and coolly chose not to change course.

Rex Tillerson took over Exxon in 2006, at a fraught time for the oil giant. Its longtime CEO, Lee Raymond, had just stepped down, handing the keys to the kingdom to his protégé, a star player on what the company called the “upstream” team, scouting and securing new oil fields to plunder. During his 12-year term as head of Exxon, Raymond ran the company with a dictatorial and dogmatic hand. He was hostile towards environmentalists and unflinching in his dismissal of climate science. Raymond sluiced tens of millions in company money into anti-environmental front groups, pro-oil politicians and industry-friendly scientists. But by 2005, there was a mini-rebellion brewing inside Exxon’s corporate headquarters in Irving, Texas. Like the French Revolution, this revolt was led by lawyers. (See Steve Coll’s definitive Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.)

The company’s attorneys feared that through Raymond’s belligerence Exxon was making itself vulnerable to a legal attack for covering up and distorting the threats posed by climate change. The concern here wasn’t from lawsuits by outside groups, such as Greenpeace, but from the company’s own shareholders and investors who might claim that Exxon had concealed a looming financial risk to the company’s bottom line.

One of the big problems confronting Tillerson the day he took over the reins was the fact that the very scientists at MIT and Stanford who had been cashing Exxon’s checks for decades to churn out white papers questioning whether fossil fuel emissions were a driving force beyond climate change, had begun to change their tune. In fact, in 2003 bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550-e1477943826411MIT’s Global System Model, largely underwritten by Exxon, forecast a 2.4-degree-centigrade rise in global temperatures over the next hundred years. By 2006, those same scientists had more than doubled that estimate. Exxon faced the prospect of being betrayed by their own bought science.

Organizationally, Exxon changes course about as quickly and adroitly as its Valdez tanker did while trying to navigate Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound.  But Tillerson is a pragmatist. A Texas boy, Tillerson idealized the Boy Scouts and when he became head of the Exxon behemoth he began handing out merit badges to company executives who met their production quotas. He set to work with an Eagle Scout’s pious determination to quietly recalibrate the company’s position on climate change. It was, in Tillerson’s mind, a concession to reality.

During the early days of the Iraq War, Exxon set up a special team to run war games on how the invasion would affect the oil industry in terms of pricing, supply and distribution networks. It sent the results of these scenarios to Dick Cheney through Cheney’s factotum Douglas Feith, and so war planning and oil development proceeded in harmony. Tillerson was familiar with the Iraq war gaming and decided to use a similar technique to help chart the company’s new climate change strategy.

Tillerson wanted his secret squad of climate change gamers to answer four questions: 1. Is climate change real? 2. Is the threat serious? 3. Are there any effective actions that can be taken to halt or reverse climate change or mitigate the damage? 4. Are the world’s leading carbon emitters likely to impose binding limits on emissions in time to prevent runaway climate change? The answer to the first two questions was “yes”. The answer to the third question was “maybe” and the fourth “no”.

The lesson Tillerson took from this assessment was that climate change is a serious threat and no government has the will or perhaps even the means to confront it. Thus, the only responsible thing to do for the shareholders of Exxon was to push forward aggressively with exploration and development of new oil fields and ventures, from Amazonia to Russia, before some other company captured the reserves. Internally, this became known as the “end game” scenario.

As CEO of Trump’s foreign policy enterprise, Tillerson seems likely to impose this cynical template on the world at large by forging new alliances with old rivals in kind of a Pax petroliana, where the body count of hot wars will be replaced by the hidden, slow deaths caused by an atmosphere gone lethal.

* * *

Roaming Charges

+ Rarely has a political drag queen come off as such a whiney bore as Milo Yiannopoulos. But Milo’s fleeting moments of fame melted faster than a Hollywood snowflake, losing his book deal, speaking slot at CPAC and editorial gig at Breitbart all in a few short hours. Then he suffered the added humiliation of having the equally boorish Bill Maher seize credit for his downfall, when it was, in fact, a case of manufactured suicide, as Milo hung himself on his own quest for the outrageous.

Give Milo a little credit, though, he finally showed us where Republicans draw a red line: Koran-burning, pussy-grabbing, school shootings, rallies by Swastika-wearing goose steppers, all just good old American fun. But they won’t tolerate jokes about the sexual molestation of 13-year olds. Finally, some clarity. Thus we say farewell to one of the most rancid media curiosities of our torpid times.

As a final salute to Milo, President Trump signed an Executive Order overturning Obama’s rule on transgendered bathrooms. No word on whether Trump adorned himself in a single strand of Melania’s pearls for the occasion.

+ Trump: “We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country … it’s a military operation.” Military Operation, eh? So much for Posse Comitatus Act, which Bill Clinton incinerated at Waco.

+ This just in from CPAC, during a speech by the American Conservative Union’s Dan Schneider who denounced “the alt-right is a hateful left-wing fascist group.” Chew on that, Muchachos.

+ For years, the Washington Post toiled in the service of John Podesta. Now the Post is returning the favor. Jeff Bezos’s rag has just hired Podesta as a columnist. Let’s hope he focuses on his two favorite topics: food and (space) aliens. I’m up for some new risotto recipes and perhaps Podesta will be able to link aliens to the abduction of those Pizzagate kids.

+ Nathaniel St. Clair and I spent a fascinating hour with Oliver Stone at his offices in Los Angeles this week. Our talk ranged from the deflating spectacle of the Left’s incessant Russia-bashing to the deplorable state of the mainstream media, particularly the daily treacle streaming from the New York Times. Stone reprimanded me for my “questionable taste in movies.” I took his punch like a big boy, staggered but not floored. Then I counterpunched by saying how much I admired a couple of his lesser known films, especially Heaven and Earth, a movie which tells the story of the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese point of view. Stone concurred, still somewhat aggrieved that American film-going audiences had little interest in hearing about the experience of the Vietnamese people themselves. Deténte was established between us.

Stone is a true American auteur. Most of his projects are his from conception through execution. Some films are more successful than others, but none fail to be intriguing on some level, largely because they are projections of a coherent sensibility. Stone comes at film primarily as a writer, but he rarely lets the words overwhelm the movie. Film is, after all, a visual medium. I watched Platoon again a couple of weeks ago and it remains the best American film on that merciless exercise in imperial brutality. If you watched Platoon and Kubrick’s Full-Metal Jacket, you’ll learn more about the real experience of Vietnam than you’ll get the 18 platitudinous hours that the insipid Ken Burns is about to inflict upon the unsuspecting viewers of PBS. (One can only hope that Trump cuts off funding for CPB by September to spare us from having to endure Burns’s banal boilerplate.) More and more, I’ve come to think that Nixon stands as Stone’s greatest achievement. Shorn of the high-octane conspiracies of JFK, Nixon moves at a deliberate pace over the course of three hours, a deep character study of an enigmatic and malevolent mind, as it sinks into darkness and dread.

Stone’s recent film, Snowden, is equally vital. Snowden is not only one of the year’s best films, it is also perhaps the most important, a film that should be mandatory viewing in every American high school, especially those under the supervision of Betsy DeVos. Stone said Snowden took three years to research, digging that was all the more demanding because of the computer science and math. Stone doesn’t do math. I sympathize fully.

It’s no surprise that Snowden was largely ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But Stone’s fellow writers appreciated how well he told that complex story of surveillance, government criminality and courageous resistance and tapped him for the Laurel Award for best screenplay. His acceptance speech is an unsparing critique of the savageness of American foreign policy.

+ Net immigration from Mexico ended years ago, now more people are returning to Mexico than entering the US. Is Trump’s wall really designed to keep people in?

+ To the tune of the “Gorka Waltz“…

If you’re unable
to tell if they’re unstable
as they’re blabbing away on cable
just look for that Nazi label
They praise it loudly
They wear it proudly
So look for their fascist tell–
Right there
on their

+ Speaking of Hitler, Trump’s new science advisor, William Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University, is a 77-year old climate change denier with a predilection for Teutonic metaphors. Happer claims that carbon has been “demonized” by Nazi-like greens, as if the harmless little molecules were “poor Jews under Hitler.” He sees himself as the Oskar Schindler of fossil fuels…

+ Three Texans go on a hunt near the Mexican border: a guide and his two clients. Paranoia sets in. The guide suspects that someone has hijacked his truck and is hightailing it to the Hill Country. He fires his gun. The people in the truck return fire. Two are wounded. Turns out they are his clients, who had, for some reason probably involving alcohol consumption, commandeered his ride.

A cover story is concocted.

When the sheriff arrives, the men claim they encountered a trio of Mexican interlopers, of the undocumented variety, who tried to hotwire their truck. These were some very bad hombres and a gun battle ensued resulting in minor casualties on both sides. In the end, the heroic Texans prevailed and the invaders scattered back toward the border having learned a harsh lesson about messing with our boys.

Lamentably, this tall tale soon unraveled and the truth emerged, followed by charges of the legal kind. But no doubt these three gallant specimens of Texas manhood will be deputized by ICE upon their release from prison….

+ Perhaps this was the “Swedish Incident” that got Trump so fired up?

+ Time spent on the golf course (25 hours and counting) is time not spent ordering ICE raids on grandmothers and toddlers…

+ Trump just appointed Lt. Gen. HR McMaster–a Russia-hating, Cold War-loving, neocon hawk–as his National Security advisor. Will the Prez get the endorsement of the MSDNC crowd now?

+ Thank Gaia for fake news, so we don’t have to fret about the fact that the crippled and not yet-perhaps never to be-fixed Fukushima nuclear plant is now more radioactive than at any point since the triple-core meltdown in 2011. Over to you, George Monbiot.

+ Bono the Banal met with Mike Pence, hailed him  as the “2nd busiest man on the planet.” Achtung Baby! 

+ Betsy DeVos’s brother Eric Prince, the mercenary entrepreneur,  is setting up two private army bases in China. Unarmed. Or so he claims. His track record in the veracity department is a little shaky.

+ No charges in Anaheim. I was down in Long Beach, Cal., sitting in a Mexican bar last night watching this unfold on Univision. Even though my Spanish is limited, I knew exactly what the police union rep and police chief were saying, the same thing they always say when they are covering up for an act of violent madness by one of their own.

And this from my old stomping grounds in Baltimore, a 16-year-old student, who was being threatened by a knife-wielding girl, was “rescued” by the cops in the following manner….

So, yeah, Fuck da Police, RAtM-style...

+ “You play with my world like it was your little toy….”

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels: I Long to See You
Delbert McClinton: Prick of the Litter
Tift Merritt: Stitch of the World
Nicholas Payton: Afro-Caribbean Mixtape
Courtney Pine: House of Legends

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

Timothy B. Tyson: The Blood of Emmett Till
Michael Hudson: J is for Junk Economics
Ian Rankin: Rather be the Devil

Academy Awards

Sticking only to the narrow choices offered by the official nominations, here are my picks:

Best Film: Moonlight
Best Actor: Denzel Washington (Fences)
Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahersala Ali (Moonlight)
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (Fences)
Best Animated Feature: Kubo and the Two Strings
Best Cinematography: James Laxton (Moonlight)
Best Costume Design: Consolata Boyle (Florence Foster Jenkins)
Best Director: Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Best Documentary Feature: I am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
Best Documentary Short: 4.1 Miles (Daphne Matziaraki)
Best Editing: Nat Sanders and Jai McMillan (Moonlight)
Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)
Best Screenplay (Adapted): August Wilson (Fences)
Best Screenplay (Original): Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)

Consciousness of Guilt

Assata Shakur: “If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what’s happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.”


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3