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The truth behind one of the companies you hate the most (and it ain’t pretty)

A review of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Until recently, when GoldmanSachs emerged as such a deserving target of opprobium, ExxonMobil was, without doubt, our country’s most-hated corporation. The two companies probably compete for that distinction today. Private Empire is Steve Coll’s admirable attempt to explain how and why the world’s most profitable private oil company became a pariah — and to relate how the company has changed in recent years. Oh, yes, it has changed.

Unless you’re under the age of 20, you were already highly aware of the ExxonValdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989 — the country’s biggest oil spill until BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. You probably also knew that ExxonMobil is the direct descendent of the Standard Oil trust assembled in the 19th Century by the quintessential robber baron, John D. Rockefeller. So, perhaps it’s clear how, when the company came into existence in its present form — in 1999, with the acquisition of Mobil Oil, another Standard offspring — it had already been rivaling its ancestor for public displeasure for a decade as a result of Exxon Valdez. (“Fortune had ranked the corporation as America’s sixth most admired before the accident; afterward, it fell to one hundred and tenth.”) It’s pretty hard not to know at least a few facts about a company that’s often ranked the biggest private enterprise in the world and supplies so much of the fuel to which we are so blithely addicted.

It’s no mystery why ExxonMobil stayed so unpopular many years after the Exxon Valdez spill. A heavy-handed Texan named Lee Raymond set the company’s tone and policy during his 12-year reign as CEO (1993-2005). “Exxon maintained a ‘kind of 1950s Southern religious culture,’ said an executive who served on the corporation’s board of directors during the Raymond era. ‘They’re all engineers, mostly white males, mostly from the South . . . They shared a belief in the One Right Answer, that you would solve the equation and that would be the answer, and it didn’t need to be debated.'” And, whatever that One Right Answer might be, it was closely held unless Raymond thought it needed to be made public. As one new employee he brought on observed, “the oil corporation’s system for maintaining confidential information was far more severe than anything she had seen while holding top secret clearance at the White House.”

It was Raymond’s determined, some might say fanatical, insistence that scientists hadn’t proved the reality of human-caused global warming that led the company to invest heavily in Right-Wing think tanks and other front groups campaigning against any proposals to regulate carbon emissions. Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson, despite his similar background, proved far more resilient on the issue. He discontinued the corporation’s support for anti-climate change campaigners and later took a high-profile public position in favor of a carbon tax.

Interestingly, “Rex Tillerson believed that transformational change would upend the oil business and global energy economy eventually. Breakthrough batteries might be the pathway, or breakthrough biofuels, or cheaper, more efficient solar technology, or some combination of those technologies, or perhaps something unimagined in the present. Not anytime soon, however. For two decades and probably much longer, Tillerson’s Management Committee concluded . . . [that] ExxonMobil could feel secure about its investments in oil and gas.”

Like Daniel Yergin in his excellent recent book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, Steve Coll debunks the notion of Peak Oil, quoting ExxonMobil executives on the significant evidence against it. However, what both authors underplay is that the large new deposits of oil and natural gas the companies are adding to their reserves, seemingly by the day, tend to require more expensive and environmentally more damaging methods of extraction. Peak Oil may not be a reality, but we’re surely in for years of increasing costs, both financial and environment, to extract fossil fuels unless the leadership of the world’s major countries manage to cap and then reduce carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, there seems little likelihood of that. ExxonMobil’s own strategic plan projects rising sales of petroleum and natural gas at least until 2030 — by which point the total load of carbon in the atmosphere will be so great that the world’s coastal cities will all be likely to drown in rising water by the end of the century. (Name a big city: odds are 4 to 1 that it’s vulnerable to flooding from rising seas.)

Private Empire showcases Coll’s exhaustive research on ExxonMobil in its 704 pages. The book is structured chronologically, focusing on the period from 1989 t0 2011. Along the way, Coll constructs detailed scenarios that reveal the issues confronting the company in a number of countries where it sources oil or gas (or mightily tries to do so): Chad, Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Iraq, and Qatar, among others, making clear that “ExxonMobil’s interests were global, not national.” Though the book is subtitled ExxonMobil and American Power, Coll makes clear that the corporation is anything but an expression of American power. In fact, he details the sometimes fractious relationship the company had even with the oil-friendly Administration of George W. Bush, despite Lee Raymond’s friendship with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Private Empire is a modern-day testimony to the even-handedness of “objective journalism.” Coll almost never reveals his personal feelings about the company and its misdeeds. In fact, the book will probably be read by some as an apologia for ExxonMobil. It’s not: the author is just too good at ferretting out the facts. On balance, it’s entirely clear why so many people hate ExxonMobil with such fervor.

Steve Coll is one of America’s most outstanding journalists. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his reporting on the SEC, the other for his 2005 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Since 2007 he has worked as President and CEO of a Washington think tank, the New America Foundation, having previously served as a staff writer for The New Yorker and as an editor of The Washington Post.  

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