Environment

Exxon’s Rex Tillerson And The Rise Of Big Oil In American Politics

The Conversation

“How Big Oil Bought the White House and Tried to Steal the Country” is the subtitle of a book that tells the story of a presidential election in which a candidate allowed money from big oil companies to help him win office and then rewarded them with plum appointments in his cabinet.

With President-elect Donald Trump picking former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, one might think the book is an early exposé of the presidential election of 2016.

Instead, it’s from “The Teapot Dome Scandal,” a book that tells the story of a corruption scandal that rocked the term of President Warren G. Harding’s administration in the 1920s.

In the context of Tillerson’s controversial appointment, history is a useful guide to understand the rising political power of Big Oil over the past century, a subject I’ve studied and written about. And with Tillerson, the political influence of the energy sector has reached a high point, particularly because it strikes the president-elect and other observers as a sensible, mainstream selection.

But this is only the latest episode of a tight relationship between energy and the U.S. government that stretches over decades.

Access to energy

In 1921, when Albert Fall accepted his position as secretary of the interior, he interpreted his responsibility to accelerate energy development on federal lands, including some in an out-of-the-way place known as Teapot Dome, Wyoming. And he believed that this meant involving private entities.

He brokered a deal with Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny, major players in the booming American oil fields of the early 1900s, blazing a new trail for federal policy – a trail that laid clear the crucial relationship between energy development and political power. In Fall’s case, he personally accepted cash to allow this access to oil developers, which made him the first cabinet official to go to jail for crimes committed while serving in office.

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