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Congressional Critics Seek 'Unequivocal No' on Exxon Sanctions Waiver Request

WASHINGTON — Congressional critics are urging the Trump administration to hold the line on a request from ExxonMobil to waive sanctions so the oil giant can proceed working with state-owned Russian company Rosneft.

The Wall Street Journal first reported this week that Exxon sought the waiver from the Treasury Department to get moving again on a joint venture first signed in 2011, specifically drilling in the Black Sea.

Rex Tillerson, now the secretary of State, oversaw the Rosneft deal as CEO of ExxonMobil.

“Russia’s activities in Ukraine and Syria have clearly shown that they cannot be trusted to be responsible or humane players on the international stage,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Thursday in a statement. “The United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia for violating the international order, and Vladimir Putin has taken no steps that would merit the removal of any sanctions.”

“I hope that American companies and the Trump administration will keep these broader implications in mind as they consider any waiver requests, regardless of Exxon’s longstanding record of lobbying against these sanctions,” he said.

Menendez added that “sanctions are one of the most important diplomatic tools we have to discourage countries from violating international law by cutting off critical resources and access to international markets,” but “sanctions are only effective if they are rigorously enforced, and exempting major business transactions fundamentally undermines their ability to act as a deterrent.”

During Tillerson’s January confirmation hearing, the senator questioned the CEO about Exxon’s lobbying against Russia sanctions. Tillerson said “Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions — not to my knowledge.”

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that when sanctions are imposed, they by their design are going to harm American business,” Tillerson testified then, under questioning from Menendez. “That’s the idea, it’s to disrupt America’s business engagement in whatever country’s being targeted for sanctions.”

ExxonMobil has not commented on the report. Tillerson received the Order of Friendship award from Russia’s Vladimir Putin in 2013 after the Rosneft deal moved forward.

The State Department would be involved in any Treasury decision to grant a sanctions waiver. Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that “obviously there’s a statutory recusal period, which I will adhere to, on any matters that might come before the State Department that deal directly and specifically with ExxonMobil.”

“Beyond that though, in terms of broader issues dealing with the fact that it might involve the oil and natural gas industry itself, the scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself,” Tillerson added. “In any instance where there is any question, or even the appearance, I would expect to seek the guidance of counsel from the Office of Ethics in the State Department, and will follow their guidance as to whether it’s an issue that I should recuse myself from.”

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said rejecting Exxon’s request is “a no-brainer” and “should be an unequivocal no.”

“Granting Exxon Mobil a waiver of Russia sanctions would play into Vladimir Putin’s hands and deepen concerns about the Trump Administration’s cozy ties with Moscow. The Treasury Department must reject it without hesitation,” Engel added Thursday.

“Not only has Vladimir Putin attacked our democratic process, he is bolstering the Assad regime, waging an illegal war in Europe, and suppressing the rights of the Russian people. The last thing the United States should be doing is clearing the way for lucrative new business opportunities for Putin and his cronies,” he continued. “At the same time, the fact that the Secretary of State’s longtime private-sector home is asking for this special treatment casts a cloud of ethical concerns over the entire landscape. His pledge to recuse himself from all questions related to Exxon Mobil certainly should apply to this.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) noted on CNN this week that ExxonMobil drilling projects cover “an area the size of Wyoming inside of Russia… and by ExxonMobil using its special relationship with Rex Tillerson to now propose a waiver, it again calls into question whether or not we are going as a country to stand up to Putin, stand up to Russia and have American national security interests be made primary and not the economic interests of ExxonMobil and other commercial interests in our country.”