Next US secretary of state Rex Tillerson had advised India to explore for oil globally

Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson flew into balmy Goa a little over a decade ago, his giant aircraft carrying loads of Evian mineral water his office had advised him to drink during his maiden India visit. But Tillerson — now US president-elect Donald Trump’s choice for the post of secretary of state — didn’t display the sort of stiff attitude expected from a person of his stature but politely asked a butler at the Taj Exotica hotel to remove stacks of Evian bottles from his table and walked across the dinning hall to pick up a Himalaya bottled water for “the perfect Indian feeling”.

Saudi Aramco chairman, Abdullah Jumah, sitting close, smiled, describing to a friend Tillerson’s choice of water as “a noble gesture” because Exxon Mobil chairmen rarely break company advice and protocol. Within seconds, he had earned the warmth of the staff of the hotel, with many appreciating his refrain of “Thank You” for the smallest of deliverances.

His keynote address at the World Oil and Gas Assembly (WOGA) — considered by many as one of the finest oil and gas conferences in Asia organised by a Norwegian media outfit — offered the best worldview for India’s beleaguered hydrocarbon sector that left many completely baffled in the ballroom, heads of Indian oil and gas companies describing Tillerson’s speech a virtual eye-opener. “He told Indian companies to boldly explore oil and gas across the world rather looking inwards,” says Narendra Taneja, a top energy expert and WOGA convenor.

File image of Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson. AP

File image of Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson. AP

File image of Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson. AP

Once the speech was over, those in the room were in awe of Tillerson, one of the organisers timed the standing ovation a little over three minutes. A speaker, who had had read in US journals that Tillerson’s expansive desk in the Exxon Mobil headquarters at Irving, Texas is called “God’s Own Pod” because of job’s importance, asked Tillerson if he lived in a palace like all rich Americans.

Tillerson, laughed, and said he lived with his family in a ranch outside Dallas in rural settings. “I stay in a log house, not palace, close to nature. That’s my style,” Tillerson replied.

By then, he had already told his staff how he was liking Goa and it’s beaches, the brick and mortar of the Taj hotel did not interest the world’s most powerful executive. But he made queries about the Taj Mahal in Agra and some destinations in Rajasthan, including the tiger jungles of Ranthambhore, and top tourist destinations like Jodhpur and Jaipur.

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In his special meetings with Indian tycoons like Reliance Industries head Mukesh Ambani, the then petroleum secretary BK Chaturvedi (who later became the cabinet secretary in Dr Manmohan Singh’s regime) and the then ONGC chairman Subir Raha, Tillerson talked about the Indian economy, people and poverty. “He found India a fascinating country and told the richest Indian that all political parties must work together if this great nation has to make a global impact,” says Taneja, a spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Tillerson, described by his friends and foes as “Mr Perfectionist”, was once disrupted when his assistant played out a slide even before the Exxon Mobil chairman had finished making his point. “A cursory glance at the technician (a member of Tillerson’s team) was enough to freeze him in his seat,” laughs Taneja.

And before the start of the conference, Tillerson’s staff — three advance teams had done background checks of the coastal state, its facilities and security arrangements — had told their boss that his maiden visit to India could be cut short because his aircraft had given jitters to the Indian Navy which had no space for the huge plane. Interestingly, the only available space taken up by India’s liquor baron Vijay Mallaya who refused to shift his plane. Eventually, the aircraft was sent to a parking bay at the Mumbai airport. It was a clear cut deviation because as per company rules, the Exxon Mobil boss cannot stay in a city in which his aircraft is not parked.

Before landing in Goa, Tillerson had a two hour stopover in the Indian Capital where he met the then petroleum minister Ram Naik — conversation details not revealed by the minister’s office, nor by the Exxon-Mobile communications team.

Tillerson, whose close ties with Moscow as Exxon’s main man in Russia, was also instrumental in pushing the state-owned ONGC-Videsh to strike a deal with Russian national oil company, Rosneft, to acquire a 20 percent participating interest in the Sakhalin-1 offshore project in north Pacific’s freezing waters. The deal, when signed was estimated at $1.7 billion, ONGC-Videsh’s largest ever overseas investment in 2001. Sakhalin-I has proven reserves of approximately 2.3 million barrels, its current output 250,000 barrels per day.

But the deal was not easy to sign. Many raised concerns about the project’s commercial viability and the Congress, then in opposition, called it dubious and economically disastrous. But the NDA government went ahead, defending the deal in Parliament in August 2001.

The criticisms fell silent when in 2006, New Delhi’s first share of Sakhalin-I crude docked at the Mangalore port in a Russian tanker berthed at New Mangalore port with VLCC (very large crude carrier). In a quick change of stance, the Congress hailed the project — virtually as its own — and pushed images of the then oil and gas minister Murli Deora receiving a bottled sample from the Russian ambassador in the Indian Capital.

Tillerson, true to his reputation, had the farsightedness needed by the Indian companies scouting for overseas acquisition.

First Published On : Dec 19, 2016 15:24 IST

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