ISTANBUL — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a brief break from his diplomatic duties on Sunday, returning to his Exxon Mobil comfort zone to bask in the glow of approval from his former colleagues in the oil sector.
Accepting a lifetime achievement award from the World Petroleum Congress, the former Exxon CEO reminisced about his more than 41 years as an oilman, calling the energy industry “marvelous” and the people in it some of the most talented in any business. He also took time to meet with Turkey’s president and foreign minister.
“I miss all of you,” he said wistfully to his former colleagues in the oil business. “I miss you as colleagues, I miss you as partners, I miss you as competitors.”
Tillerson said he learned he would be honored with the WPC’s Dewhurst Award before then-President-elect Donald Trump chose him to be America’s top diplomat and thought his trip to Istanbul to accept it would be a pleasurable interruption of a fishing trip in his planned retirement followed by a “leisurely journey back home.”
“It didn’t quite work out that way,” he said to laughter from the crowd of oil executives and top government energy officials from dozens of nations. Tillerson arrived in Istanbul after attending the Group of 20 summit in Germany and a brief visit to Ukraine. He departs Monday for what may be a week of grueling shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East.
Tillerson has been criticized for leading Exxon during a period when the company downplayed climate change and global warming but nonetheless argued unsuccessfully for Trump not to pull the U.S. out the Paris climate accord. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned the importance of protecting the environment, but spent more time extolling the economic and social benefits of energy production.
“Energy is fundamental to economic growth and prosperity, it’s fundamental to lifting people out of poverty the world over,” he said, adding “that it requires massive investments over long periods of time and requires enormous risk-taking and risk management.”
Tillerson also made a pitch for the promotion of longstanding U.S. priorities around the world. He called rule of law and international order, respect for the sanctity of contracts and integrity “crucial elements” for success. “Whenever those elements are present, investors will make the massive investments, they’ll take the risk, and they’ll persevere through the challenges in order to achieve the objective,” he said.
He also talked up another U.S. priority that predates the Trump administration: European energy diversification and security. He noted that Turkey will play a critical role in weaning Europe from its dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies because of its location.
“It’s just a fact of geography that Turkey sits at the crossroads of vital energy resources along supply routes and routes to consumers,” he said.
Before leaving the ceremony to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Tillerson paid tribute to the men and women of Turkey who stood up to last year’s attempted coup, the first anniversary of which is Saturday.
“It was on that day that the Turkish people exercised their rights under the Turkish constitution, defended their place in a prosperous Turkey, and we remember those who were injured or died in that event,” he said.
Tillerson and Erdogan did not speak to reporters at the start of their meeting that comes at a moment of high tension in U.S.-Turkish relations, mainly over Washington’s support for Kurds in Syria.