Book review: Steve Coll's "Private Empire"

David Biello is associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American magazine.

So far in 2012, ExxonMobil has made $104 million a day -- and that's an off year. In 2005, the oil giant earned a net profit of $36.1 billion, or "more money than any corporation had made in history," writes Steve Coll in his illuminating saga of the most successful and largest heir to John D. Rockefeller's strangling monopoly, Standard Oil. Simply put, ExxonMobil has been among the world's largest and most profitable companies since the 1950s, and it is so confident of its future that it recently raised the dividend paid to shareholders by a whopping 21 percent.

Private Empire begins in 1989 with the tale of the Exxon Valdez, the company oil tanker that ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, and ends 22 years later with ExxonMobil's credit rating surpassing that of the U.S. government. The title derives from the company's need to control actual physical territory in order to profitably pump. The result is amassed power and influence, used mostly for ill (if one's interest is human rights, economic development or combating climate change), or good (if one's focus is cheap gasoline).

Coll, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of previous books on the CIA's history in Afghanistan and on the Bin Ladin family, here weaves a work around a profile of the reigns of two emperors. There is South Dakotan Lee "Iron Ass" Raymond, who parlays a relentless focus on safety in the wake of the Exxon Valdez into imperial corporate control, whether it is the initiation of a "safety minute" at the start of any meeting or the installation of tracking devices in the vehicles of known speeders. Raymond's successor, the Texan Rex Tillerson (the "Eagle Scout"), attempts to soften the company's image by doling out medals for good work, an incentive reminiscent of scout merit badges, and embracing a carbon tax to control greenhouse gas emissions.

ExxonMobil perhaps looms largest in the U.S. on this subject of climate change. Early in the book, Coll lays out the company's apparent objectives via an American Petroleum Institute memo from the 1990s:

Average citizen "understands" (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science; Recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the "conventional wisdom"; media "understands" (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science; media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints challenging current "conventional wisdom"; those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.

If that was also ExxonMobil's goal, the many millions of dollars that the oil company spent worked. Each item on that memo can be checked off -- thanks largely to Raymond's close relationship with then-Vice President Dick Cheney. "We just gave away the environment," observed then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill after the Bush Administration repudiated action on climate change in 2001.

Similarly, just 12 days before Obama's inauguration, Tillerson publicly advocated a carbon tax. In fact, that thumbs up seemed to have more to do with further delay of any regulation than a change of heart on climate change. As Coll puts it nicely, quoting a company lobbying meeting with the new Administration, Tillerson "was happy to have a position that nobody was going to embrace."

The irony is that ExxonMobil found good use for climate change: It cut its greenhouse gas emissions as a result of its focus on profits, largely by avoiding the flaring of natural gas co-produced with oil. It even used climate predictions to inform exploration, banking on global warming to melt more ice and thus allow access to Arctic oil, a nice side benefit of the company's intransigence on climate change. "Don't believe for a second that ExxonMobil doesn't think climate change is real," Coll quotes a former manager.

Such quotations as well as anecdotes humanize the massive cast of characters in this sprawling book. Raymond is revealed as kind to the air crew of his private corporate jet while routinely excoriating journalists, analysts and underlings for alleged stupidity. Fine phrases -- "Chad's politicians and labor leaders might be poor and some of them might be unsophisticated, but they had been schooled in obduracy and provocation by French colonialists, which made them formidable" -- leaven the work. And Coll puts the reader inside very closed rooms, such as a barbecue thrown for Russian President Vladimir Putin by U.S. President George W. Bush in November of 2001.

The book reads much like Dan Yergin's magisterial The Prize, absent the zest of conquest and with just a whiff of distaste. Coll handles science -- whether climate change, endocrine disrupting chemicals or geologic estimates of natural gas reserves -- with clarity and power. There are tantalizing hints of massive technological feats, such as Sakhalin I, ExxonMobil's massive engineering project off the western coast of Russia. Yet the poetry of the vast machines that enable oil's journey from well to gas tank is foregone in favor of the endless mundanity of bureaucratic power.

In the end, this book is about Exxon's fraught relationship with the U.S. government, and really any government with which it interacts. That underlying tension may stem from the original sin of the court-ordered split of Standard Oil into pieces in 1911, the biggest of them Standard Oil of New Jersey (to become Exxon in 1973, and later ExxonMobil). One would think that blow would have been softened by the fact that Rockefeller and his executives became significantly richer by holding on to stock in each of the successor companies. But, as Coll writes, Exxon's disdain for government suggests that company executives never got over it.

And yet the book details ExxonMobil turning to the U.S. government time and again for favors, such as for the State Department to help Chad to renegotiate a contract with the World Bank to enable more spending on weaponry -- and more oil pumping by Exxon.

Through the last two decades, ExxonMobil's main challenge has been replacing the oil it pumps from the ground in vast volume or, as Raymond puts it, the task of how "to find a Conoco every year." That also lies at the heart of Coll's main charge against the company -- that Raymond and Tillerson routinely ignored U.S. government rules when reporting reserves.

As Raymond's quote suggests, Exxon is better at finding oil by buying companies than by discovering it. That is borne out by its 1999 acquisition of Mobil, but also its attempt to repeat the feat more recently with the purchase of shale gas player XTO. This trick has an even longer history. The original Standard Oil of New Jersey, when hived off from the rest of Standard Oil, was refinery-rich and oil-poor. Its first chief executive -- Walter Teagle -- made it his priority to scour the world for oil-rich companies to acquire, starting with Texas's Humble Oil in 1919. That dimension of Exxon's historical reality diverges from company culture as described by Coll, and epitomized by Rex Tillerson, who was chosen over other potential claimants to the throne because "real men -- they discover oil."

This points to what makes the book, at times, feel incomplete. Private Empire often elides the history that led to ExxonMobil's behavior in the span covered. Might it be possible that ExxonMobil's success has something to do with it and other U.S. oil companies taking more oil wealth out of the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s than the British Empire wrung from India in the entire 19th century? Given the profound industry cost-cutting and layoffs of the 1980s, could it not be that we are looking back on a set of circumstances similar to those that produced the BP blowout in the Gulf in 2010? The similar context certainly contributed to the Valdez accident and ultimately to the safety tenets that characterized Raymond's reign. This is the history that formed the Raymond we know, and informed his tenure as chief executive.

And the hard-and-fast Exxon Way goes only so far, we learn. The relentless emphasis on safety, depicted as pervading everything at ExxonMobil, is later revealed to be carried out by a company vice president with a secret life as a thrill-seeker, jumping out of planes among other life-threatening pursuits. The company tolerates chronic oil spills in Nigeria, begging the question of how pervasive Emperor Iron Ass's safety culture really was.


ExxonMobil doesn't often return my own calls, and when some benighted public relations person finally does, he follows the confining PR script laid out in such compelling detail by Coll so closely that it's a useless conversation. So the volume of detail that Coll and his able assistants managed to dig up on this corporate behemoth is incredibly impressive.

But if Coll is seeking to build an indictment against ExxonMobil, as seems to be his aim, he does not achieve it. Circumstantial evidence of human rights abuses in Indonesia, corruption in Chad or Equatorial Guinea, and lobbying in Washington corridors do not make a strong case of malfeasance. After all, as Coll rightly notes, private companies have been involved in wars since at least the East India Company.

Rather, the book might have added a crucial point. It scrupulously documents what we already know: Oil companies operate in bad parts of the world, more often than not following local rules about greasing the wheels. As Coll quotes Cheney: "The good Lord didn't see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States. ... We go where the business is."

But in the rest of the world, ExxonMobil is a corporation deputized by us to slake our seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil. In the end, Raymond, Tillerson and everyone else at ExxonMobil are servants, well-paid servants, managing a global effort to meet a demand for oil that knows no bounds and only cares to be satisfied. Exxon sells 14 billion gallons of gas to Americans per year, most of it from its 14,000 branded gas stations. In a sense, ExxonMobil is America's national oil champion, vying with the national oil titans of China, Russia or Saudi Arabia around the globe (though, of late, Chevron has vied for that crown). Its major crime at home seems to be a "burn your house down" legal strategy, a habit of bringing tremendous financial resources to bear against anyone with the temerity to sue it, whether for the toxic properties of gasoline additives or plastic-softening phthalate chemicals.

Petroleum is a dirty business, but ExxonMobil most often gets dirty on our behalf and at our behest. My fellow Americans and I treat cheap energy as a right and the solution to all problems. ExxonMobil merely serves that greed -- it isn't the problem, despite shady practices. We are, as evidenced by U.S. willingness to tolerate oil wealth wrested from Equatorial Guinea and invested by kleptocrats in luxury goods or real estate in this country. Or as Coll observes at the very end: "The environmental consequences of a single accident could be very severe, but they did not threaten the lives of oil customers or change their purchasing behavior." I would have liked to see Coll explore this angle -- how in fact we need ExxonMobil. There is a symbiosis between this oil giant and the people it serves.

Read this book to learn the secrets of ExxonMobil's business, and yet its soul will remain opaque. The book precisely details the intertwined history of ExxonMobil and the U.S. government -- a tremendous achievement, and worth reading. From 450 interviews and countless diplomatic cables and government documents, Coll proves what we already sense is true: Did Exxon pervert the debate on climate change? Yes, quite successfully. Does Exxon involve itself with distasteful governments? Yes, along with the active collusion of the U.S. government. Does Exxon mint money? Yes, it is the most successful corporation in the history of corporations. But I am nagged by the question of why it does so. Could it be simply the banal aim of perpetuating the company, as an end in itself?

This book is an exhaustive addition to the weight of evidence surrounding ExxonMobil, but we are left baffled by the motives of the people who run it. ExxonMobil will not tell, and the oil company's accomplices -- all of us -- have slipped away.


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