Political Path Narrows for Exxon Deal With Russian Firm

By Bradley Olson and Jay Solomon Features Dow Jones Newswires

When President Donald Trump picked Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., to be his secretary of state, some oil analysts assumed the appointment signaled a potential revival of the firm's halted partnership with Russia.

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Four months later, with Exxon now seeking a waiver from U.S. sanctions to allow it to drill with Russian state-oil giant PAO Rosneft in the Black Sea, the political path for such an opportunity appears to be narrowing significantly.

Congress and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to probe ties between aides to Mr. Trump and Russia's government. Many lawmakers back expanded sanctions in response to assessments by the U.S. intelligence community that Moscow interfered in the U.S. presidential election.

"While a waiver to allow business with prohibited Russian entities may be in Exxon Mobil's interest, it would clearly not be in America's national security interest," Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Rubio joined other members of Congress -- of both parties -- in urging the Trump administration to reject Exxon's request to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, saying Russia hasn't done anything to merit the loosening of sanctions. Exxon's request was floated in 2015 and renewed in March, according to a person familiar with the matter.

" Vladimir Putin has taken no steps that would merit the removal of any sanctions," Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) said in a statement Thursday.

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"The last thing the United States should be doing is clearing the way for lucrative new business opportunities for Putin and his cronies," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), the top-ranked Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

"Are they crazy?" was the message put up on Twitter on Wednesday by Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in response to the news of Exxon's waiver request.

Mr. Rubio and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had both expressed reservations about Mr. Tillerson's nomination to be Secretary of State before voting to confirm him. A spokesman for Mr. Graham said he was unavailable.

Neither Exxon nor the U.S. Treasury Department would comment on the waiver request. State Department officials noted Mr. Tillerson has pledged to recuse himself for two years from any issue involving his former company.

Exxon has sought permission to drill in Russia's Black Sea waters since mid-2015, a request the Obama administration didn't approve. Exxon is wary of the efforts of rivals such as Italian oil company Eni SpA and Norway's Statoil ASA to continue to explore Russian prospects despite European Union sanctions.

Exxon has until the end of the year to drill in the Black Sea, according to its agreement with Rosneft. It can obtain a license to operate only if it makes a discovery, a possibility that will become increasingly unlikely if Treasury doesn't grant a waiver soon.

Mr. Tillerson said earlier this month that U.S.-Russia relations had reached a "low point," in comments following U.S. bombing of a Syrian air base in response to the regime's apparent use of chemical weapons.

Write to Bradley Olson at Bradley.Olson@wsj.com and Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 20, 2017 19:45 ET (23:45 GMT)