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ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, in this 2015 file photo.

© Reuters Photographer / Reuter

The man poised to replace Rex Tillerson as the leader of America's most influential energy giant helped transform Exxon Mobil Corp.'s refining business from a poor cousin of oil production to the primary profit generator.

Darren Woods, the company's refining boss since 2012, may be named the next chief executive officer if Tillerson is appointed secretary of state by President-elect Donald Trump. Even if Tillerson is passed over for top diplomat, he's due to retire no later than March, when he will reach Exxon's mandatory retirement age.

Woods, 51, would inherit a drilling and refining behemoth hamstrung by a 2 1/2-year slump in energy markets, ill-timed investments in North American shale and Russia, and allegations of deceiving investors with a climate-change cover-up. Still, Trump's election, OPEC's plan to cut production and Woods's ability to boost the value of the company's refineries have all combined to change the face of the industry for Exxon heading into the future.

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A President Trump will "absolutely" be a boon to Exxon and the rest of the oil industry, Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., said in a telephone interview. "The industry hasn't asked for a hand up from Washington, but instead has said, 'Get off our backs.' Less regulation means less burden" on oil explorers.

Woods's elevation to CEO was telegraphed with his December 2015 promotion to president and the board of directors. He's been a member of the six-person management committee that oversees day-to-day operations since June 2014.

Refining Reversal

For the past five quarters at Exxon, refining has outperformed so-called upstream oil and natural gas wells, a complete reversal of the traditional relationship. Since June 2015, Exxon's refineries and related business lines raked in $6.34-billion, compared to $3.05-billion for the oil and gas business. During that same period, refining burned through $3.1-billion in capital spending, compared to almost 10 times that amount – $22.9-billion – in the upstream segment.

A Kansas-born electrical engineer by training, Woods joined Exxon as an analyst in 1992 and rose through the ranks on the refining and chemicals side of the business. His main rival in the competition to succeed Tillerson was Jack Williams, a drilling engineer who oversaw oil and natural gas projects from Louisiana to Malaysia before taking control of XTO Energy, the shale explorer Exxon bought in 2010 for $35-billion.

One of Woods's most-pressing tasks will be figuring out how to rescue a still-born Russian joint-venture that locked up $1-billion in investments and a billion-barrel Arctic oil discovery behind a wall of international sanctions.

Russia Quandary

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When Exxon signed a 2011 agreement to join with Rosneft PJSC in drilling Arctic, deepwater and shale fields, it was seen as a crowning achievement of Tillerson's career. But the work slammed to a halt when the U.S. and European Union imposed economic sanctions against Russia in 2014 as punishment for its annexing Crimea and supporting Ukrainian separatists. The venture has been mostly idle ever since.

On the home front, Woods will have to confront allegations by attorneys general from New York, Massachusetts and other states that Exxon misled investors about the threat posed to the company's portfolio by climate change. Under Tillerson, the company has aggressively defended its record and said the probes are politically motivated.

Woods made $28,833 in political contributions during the past four years. The biggest recipient was Exxon's political action committee, which took in $13,700. Woods also gave the Republican National Congressional Committee $10,000.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and several non-OPEC nations including Russia committed to cutting almost 1.8 million barrels a day of crude starting next year.

Legendary oil tycoon Boone Pickens sees crude reaching $60 a barrel within a month, and $75 some time next year. "I'm long oil," Pickens said during a Bloomberg Television interview on Monday. OPEC members "will carry out what they say they will do. They will cut supply."

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