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Ed CrooksIf there was ever a company that deserved a proper corporate biography, it is ExxonMobil.
As the world's largest non-governmental producer of oil and gas, and for several years the world's largest listed company by market capitalisation, it has been at the heart of many of the central issues of our time, from the debate over climate change to the war on terror. It is surprising that it has not been the subject of a serious book-length investigation until now.
The good news is that Private Empire is worth the wait. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, it is likely to be the definitive work on its subject for many years to come. Steve Coll, president of the centrist think-tank the New America Foundation, is honest about Exxon's strengths as well as its flaws, and presents both sides of the arguments with scrupulous even-handedness. Conclusions about whether the company is a force for good or ill in the world are left for the reader to decide.
The book does not trace Exxon's full history back to its roots as John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil in the 1870s, which is in a way a shame: there are some instructive parallels to be drawn about the tensions between governments and the oil industry then and now.
But by choosing a shorter period - the 21 years between the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico - Coll is able to focus more sharply on the story of Exxon's remarkable success in the modern world.
In a series of episodes, jumping around the globe from Indonesia to Chad to Iraq to Washington, he tells the stories of how the company has advanced the interests of its shareholders in its dealings with democratic governments, dictators and in¬surgents. At every stop there are vivid anecdotes, sharp insights and telling details.
In one striking image, Coll compares the chief executive of Exxon with the president of France or the chancellor of Germany: broadly friendly to US interests, in other words, but not always perfectly aligned with them.
The company has always had close ties to the US government, and that was particularly true under president George W. Bush because of the good relationship between Dick Cheney, the vice-president, and Lee Raymond, Exxon's chief executive from 1993 to 2005. Even then, though, Exxon's leaders always insisted on putting the company's needs first, and clashed with the administration over issues such as relations with Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, and Bush's ambition to cure the US of its 'addiction' to foreign oil.
It is Raymond who emerges as the book's anti-hero. Ferociously bright and frequently just plain ferocious, he was the dominant force at Exxon even before he formally took command, and picked his successor Rex Tillerson, who still leads the company.
As Coll explains, Raymond was responsible for many of the central features that have defined the company over the past two decades, including the engineering rigour and focus on safety - exhaustively overhauled following the Exxon Valdez oil spill - that have made Exxon the industry's most admired company for operational excellence. He was also the inspiration behind the company's vigorous rejection of the need to take action to avert the threat of climate change. That line has been modified under Tillerson, but the company still insists on the central role fossil fuels will play in energy supplies for decades to come.
Exxon is in a sense a living fossil. In the 1950s its peers as rulers of the US corporate landscape were companies such as US Steel, IBM and General Motors, and while they have to varying degrees fallen by the wayside, Exxon has continued to prosper.
Its financial success is undeniable: the company now has a higher credit rating than the US government.
The price, as Coll puts it, may be that "global warming on a scale scientists describe today as dangerous will occur".
—Financial Times (US energy and industry editor)