The new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has received a ringing endorsement from a former Russian energy minister.
Speaking to The Independent, Igor Yusufov said his experience of working with Mr Tillerson, former chief executive of oil giant ExxonMobil, had been “fantastic”, adding that he had the “best qualities” of a senior manager.
His remarks come amid concern in some quarters about the closeness of the Trump administration to Vladimir Putin and US intelligence agency reports that Russian agents interfered in the US election to help the Republican billionaire beat Hillary Clinton.
Mr Tillerson made his name in Russia by helping turn a technically difficult project to drill for oil off Sakhalin Island into a success, earning billions of dollars in tax revenue for Moscow. Fortune magazine even suggested Mr Putin might have a “man crush” on the new Secretary of State.
The project went ahead despite the presence of a population of grey whales with Mr Yusufov saying Mr Tillerson had helped ensure the whales were not harmed.
But one conservationist suggested the associated noise might disturb the critically endangered marine mammals and warned there was a risk of oil spills.
Mr Yusufov, who founded the fossil-fuel-focused investment company Fund Energy, was clearly keen to sing Mr Tillerson’s praises – The Independent was one of a number of media outlets contacted by his staff.
“Mr Tillerson is a person of business and is a very bottom-line person. Mr Tillerson was excellent company,” he said through an interpreter.
“He started as a simple employee and then he became the manager of the top level … he proved he is a successful business person.
“In general he has the best qualities of the top managers. He keeps his faith … and he’s quite successful in his work.
“One of his principal qualities is he can listen and he can hear his business partners. It’s really important in the diplomatic work to understand the position of his partner and … to balance the decision.”
Mr Tillerson’s handling of the Sakhalin Island oil wells was a prime example of his qualities, he said.
“It was a technically difficult project because they had a difficult ecological situation. Thanks to Mr Tillerson the project became top level,” Mr Yusufov said.
“It was a place inhabited by big fish [the grey whales]. They were living there and it was really dangerous. There was no harm because such good ecological conditions were [maintained].”
Working with Mr Tillerson “for me … was a fantastic experience because he demonstrated, at the top level, his competence”, Mr Yusufov added.
A joint project between Exxon and Russian oil giant Rosneft to explore for oil in the Arctic was also going well, he said.
“He managed to drill the wells in the north of Russia and it was quite a difficult ecological situation there because there are many icebergs, but Mr Tillerson managed to make his commitments and to do his work successfully,” Mr Yusufov said.
Despite concerns about the Trump administration’s views on climate change, the former Russian minister said: “In my opinion I don’t think that the US will change its commitment and its implementation.
“As far as I understand, the new American administration has taken a time out, just to review this problem.
“I think the US has a choice between the balance of its economic requirements, the development of the US economy, and the possibility of reducing the fossil fuel emissions.”
And he claimed – despite environmentalists’ concerns about Mr Tillerson’s stance on the issue – that the new Secretary of State would help convince Donald Trump not to abandon the United States’ part in the international attempts to limit global warming.
“As I know Mr Tillerson, he is a person of wide education and he recognises the ecological situation,” Mr Yusufov said.
“He will study this problem in the same way he has solved many ecological problems, I think.
“He will play a key role in the discussions on this issue.”
Commenting on Mr Tillerson’s role in the Sakhalin island oil project, Erich Hoyt, a research fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: “Tillerson may well call it a well-managed operation from the oil company point of view.
“But those last few grey whales from the western population may not be so excited about the oil companies coming into their feeding habitat, making noise that, even if the company operations are somewhat separated from the feeding zone, carries underwater.
“And there is always the threat of oil spills — not something you want to have anywhere near a feeding habitat for a critically endangered population, according to the IUCN Red List.”
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