Behind Big Oil, the original big business

A review of Steve Coll’s Private Empire

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power | By Steve Coll | Penguin Press HC | 704 pages, $36

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010, reporters were thrown into the deep end of the oil and gas industry—again. Twenty-two years earlier, another catastrophic spill shocked the country and changed the industry: the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It’s these two catastrophes that bookend Steve Coll’s new book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.

Coll, a two-time Pulitzer winner, has covered the oil industry before, with his 1987 book The Taking of Getty Oil. In Private Empire, Coll reports on ExxonMobil, one of the first truly global companies. ExxonMobil, a descendant of Standard Oil, conducts its business in over 20 countries, influencing governments and other large companies in the process.

Now, with oil increasingly scarce, ExxonMobil and its competitors scour land and sea for new energy resources. The hunt frequently leads to dangerous locations from which oil and gas can only be extracted by new and untested methods.

Coll’s intensive research gives him a unique opportunity to explain how ExxonMobil and the oil and gas industry affect so much of the news. The role that ExxonMobil played in specific events is outlined in detail in Private Empire, though the book fails to give a full narrative arc of the company’s history and the larger pattern of the industry’s influence. In addition to traveling to many of the spots where ExxonMobil does business, Coll conducted over 400 interviews, and combed through thousands of documents, including court cases, diplomatic cables and PowerPoint presentations (ExxonMobil’s preferred method of corporate communication). He takes the readers to private meetings, public protests, dinner parties, and a fireside chat (technically a fire-pit chat) between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush’s secretary of commerce after a dinner at Bush’s ranch in Texas. This conversation centered on Putin’s desire to emulate the United States’ successes in the oil industry and how the two countries could form a partnership. The conversation helped shape Russia and America’s energy relationship.

Bush and Putin are familiar names, and readers soon become just as familiar with Lee R. Raymond, ExxonMobil’s chairman and chief executive from 1993-2005. Raymond worked for ExxonMobil for 40 years, and his framework allows him to comment on many pivotal moments in company and the industry at large. His intimate knowledge of the company and his strong character make him Coll’s most interesting and important source. The gruff, no-nonsense Raymond, nicknamed “Iron Ass,” is candid and open with Coll about his tenure at Exxon. Raymond oversaw the company’s 1999 merger with Mobil; he was behind the company’s firm denial of global warming, and the expansion into politically unstable but oil-rich countries around the world. In retirement, Raymond is forthcoming, but Coll leaves him unchallenged on many of his business decisions.

When he was running the country’s largest company, Raymond’s power and influence was formidable. He could play hardball with anyone who disagreed with him. “Exxon’s size and the nature of its business model meant that it functioned as a corporate state within the American state,” writes Coll. ExxonMobil, Raymond believed, had the ability to wait out presidents and policies that didn’t benefit the company. “Presidents come and go; Exxon doesn’t come and go,” Raymond said.

That’s not to say that ExxonMobil was immune to public criticism. After Valdez, Raymond was obsessed with safety. In addition to large-scale programs, “failing to turn off a coffeepot might draw a written reprimand. Cars had to be backed in to parking spaces, so that in case of emergency, the driver could see clearly while speeding away and would not inadvertently injure colleagues,” writes Coll.

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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Gloria Dawson is a writer in New York. Tags: , , , , ,