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Book Review: Private Empire

After having extensively tackled the topic of al-Qaida with The Bin Ladens and Ghost Wars, Steve Coll has turned his attention to ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM)

At first blush, this might seem like a dramatic thematic departure for Coll as a journalist and author.  However, Coll’s newest work, Private Empire:  ExxonMobil and American Power, makes clear that the world’s largest corporation is roughly as powerful a force on the global geopolitical stage as the world’s most dangerous terrorist network.  And, not only powerful, but also sometimes working against the interests of the United States and its citizens. 

Private Empire begins with a recap of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident and ends with the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon accident, these two spills reflecting the hubris that widely prevails within Big Oil and the gap between the perceived and actual ability to prevent or at minimum contain such disasters. 

In between, Private Empire explores the cultural norms of ExxonMobil, its activities in U.S. policy circles (especially in sowing climate change denial), and its various dealings with bad actors around the world (e.g., Indonesia, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Venezuela, Iraq) to obtain access to petroleum reserves.

Although definitive as a recent history of ExxonMobil, the book is far more than just a corporate biography.  It reveals the internal machinations of Big Oil and illustrates over and over how Big Oil needs to often stoop lowly into moral and ethical morasses in the relentless pursuit – a never-ending treadmill – of somehow replacing the oil and gas produced last year or else face inevitable decline.

One thing is abundantly clear:  as the largest remaining component of the former Standard Oil, ExxonMobil is most definitely the son of the father. 

Before being broken up into smaller pieces by anti-trust action in 1911, Standard Oil was ruthless in its rigor, professionalism and anti-sentimentality.  Everything and everyone not Standard Oil was an enemy to be conquered.  Strongly imprinted by the values of founder John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil pursued one purpose – to maximize the wealth of its shareholders – fully cloaked in the belief that the company was doing God’s work in allowing Mankind to achieve higher standards of living.

ExxonMobil seems to operate in the same vein, and their leaders seem to follow closely in the footsteps of Rockefeller:  pious but cold, principled in their principles and no-one else’s. 

This was especially true of Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil’s CEO during most of the 1990s into the mid-2000s.  Raymond makes for an interesting villain:  someone with a few notable positive attributes (e.g., loyalty) that partially counterbalance his overt meanness. 

Notably, Raymond was convinced that everyone hated ExxonMobil and would always hate ExxonMobil no matter what.  As a result, Raymond didn’t have ExxonMobil undertake any proactive media or public relations strategies to soften the company’s image, as were more vigorously pursued by its fellow Big Oil brethren BP (NYSE: BP), Shell (LSE:  RDSA) and (to a lesser extent) Chevron (NYSE: CVX).  If the ExxonMobil empire was virtually-universally perceived as nasty, as long as it was respected and produced excellent financial results, that was fine with Raymond.

In the wake of Raymond, current CEO Rex Tillerson comes off much more favorably, with his Boy Scout earnestness and at least some willingness to engage productively with outside stakeholders.

Even with Tillerson’s less heavy-handed touch, the ExxonMobil playbook reveals itself again and again as domineering:  outlast and outspend the opposition, bend the truth and rules as much as possible, delay and litigate as needed.   It’s not a pretty picture.  Other oil companies no doubt act this way to some extent, but Coll makes the case compellingly that ExxonMobil is far and away the most extreme of the Big Oil club members.  Fully 100 years after the anti-trust dismemberment, resentment towards the government seems to still ooze from every pore and fiber of the ExxonMobil corporate body.

As you’d expect from the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Coll is thorough in his reporting, and the writing is clear and energetic, effortlessly pulling the reader through the narrative.

One minor stylistic complaint:  the last seven pages of the book merit its own chapter, rather than being tacked onto the discussion of the Deepwater Horizon debacle.  Using Coll’s practice for naming chapters based on a juicy snippet of the text contained within, I would suggest that this denouement should be called “I Had To Do What Was Best For My Shareholders”.

This was a quote from Tillerson in 2011, when he revealed telephonically to U.S. State Department officials that ExxonMobil signed an agreement directly with the Kurds (not with the Iraqi government in Baghdad) to develop oil resources, against the explicit wishes of the Obama Administration.  With this anecdote and several others in the final pages, Coll ties up many of the loose threads he exposes in the prior 600 pages, and the cumulative effect makes for a sobering conclusion. 

Basically, Coll totals up all the ways in which ExxonMobil has won, at the expense of others who have lost.  In many cases, the loser was the United States itself. 

The subtitle of the book – ExxonMobil and American Power – is somewhat misleading, as it implies that the two subjects are on a similar footing.  Indeed, one can make the case that “American Power” (whatever that is, or whatever remains of it) is revealed by Coll to be in fact subservient to ExxonMobil.  When convenient, ExxonMobil benefited from the government’s service and support, and pressed upon both legislators and the executive branch for certain actions.  Otherwise, ExxonMobil went its own way, sometimes hostile to government (and often hostile to public) interests.

Perhaps in service of his role as President of the policy think-tank New America Foundation, Coll hints pretty clearly his sense that the “era of corporate ascendancy” — with ExxonMobil being a poster-child — is a significant negative force at work in the United States.  Mentioning the Citizens United decision as an example of the mechanics by which that force works, Coll asserts that ExxonMobil’s success “reflected in part the growing relative power of corporations in the American political and economic system.” 

The question that Private Empire ultimately poses the reader is whether ExxonMobil’s gargantuan success is a good thing overall – especially when considering who is losing, and why they might be losing.  This may be no more vividly illustrated than in the final paragraph of the book: 

“In 1999, the year that Exxon’s acquisition of Mobil closed, the federal government and the corporation each took in more money annually than was required to meet expenses.  Their paths then divided.  In an era of terrorism, expeditionary wars, and upheaval abroad, coupled with tax cutting and reckless financial speculation at home, one navigated confidently, while the other foundered.  From the day of the Mobil merger closing until the day of the S&P downgrade [of U.S. debt ratings in 2011], the net cash flow of the United States – receipts minus expenditures – was approximately negative $5.7 trillion.  ExxonMobil’s net cash flow from operations and asset sales during the same period was a positive $493 billion.”

It could be argued more broadly that the last decade has seen a massive wealth transfer from the U.S. taxpayer to its largest corporations (and its shareholders).  As Coll’s exhaustive and authoritative reporting suggests, nobody does it better than ExxonMobil.