As the vice president in charge of safety and environmental issues, Frank Sprow was the man who helped enforce the coffeepot and parking regulations. The chapter profiling Sprow is split in two sections. The second half is a mirrored profile on Kert Davies, a director at Greenpeace. Davies countered ExxonMobil’s “no comment” media philosophy with ‘“killer quotes’ he placed with particular reporters from major newspapers to advance his messaging.” When ExxonMobil helped author a book titled Red Hot Lies: How Global Warming Alarmists Use Threats, Fraud and Deception to Keep you Misinformed, Greenpeace released a report titled “A Decade of Dirty Tricks: ExxonMobil’s Attempts to Stop the World [from] Tackling Climate Change.”
The chapter on Sprow and Davies is a wonderful example of how Coll uses smaller players to show the inner workings of the oil industry. But the chapter also illustrates the “he said, she said” (or, in this case, “he said, he said”) journalistic style that, ultimately, leaves the book heavy with detail but light on insight. The overwrought facts and copious characters in Private Empire gum up the narrative flow. What do we learn from knowing that Rosemarie Forsythe, ExxonMobil’s Russia adviser and planner for international political strategy, was a “precocious child?” Discovering which instrument Rex Tillerson, who replaced Raymond in 2006, played in his college marching band could have been easily edited out. (Drums, by the way.)
Coll is not responsible for solving our energy crisis, even in 600-plus pages, but after such in-depth reporting we don’t have much of a takeaway. The book travels the globe but rarely takes a moment to put all the pieces together. Private Empire is an engrossing account of one corporation, but in many ways it misses the chance to put the company into context. The detailed descriptions of events could easily be trimmed and concluded with contextual analysts. ExxonMobil was one of the original global businesses, and in the increasingly international economy we could learn more from their story.
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