Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

by Steve Coll


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From the award-winning and bestselling author of Ghost Wars and Directorate S, an “extraordinary” and “monumental” exposé of Big Oil (The Washington Post)

Includes a profile of current Secretary of State and former chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson

In this, the first hard-hitting examination of ExxonMobil—the largest and most powerful private corporation in the United States—Steve Coll reveals the true extent of its power. Private Empire pulls back the curtain, tracking the corporation’s recent history and its central role on the world stage, beginning with the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 and leading to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The action spans the globe—featuring kidnapping cases, civil wars, and high-stakes struggles at the Kremlin—and the narrative is driven by larger-than-life characters, including corporate legend Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, ExxonMobil’s chief executive until 2005, and current chairman and chief executive Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump's nomination for Secretary of State. A penetrating, news-breaking study, Private Empire is a defining portrait of Big Oil in American politics and foreign policy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143123545
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/2013
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 262,785
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Steve Coll is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and from 2007 to 2013 was president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and previously worked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. He is the author of seven other books, including On the Grand Trunk Road, The Bin Ladens, Private Empire, and Directorate S.

Read an Excerpt

A few days before the Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef, tens of thousands of Hungarians marched through Budapest. The demonstrators turned the commemoration of an 1848 uprising against Austrian rule into a revolt against Soviet-backed communism. “Resign!” they shouted outside downtown buildings housing Communist Party bureaucrats. “Freedom! . . . No more shall we be slaves!” They carried flags from Hungary’s pre-Communist era and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet military forces. “Ivan, Aren’t You Homesick?” and “Legal State, Not a Police State” declared their protest signs.

The defiant march added to the cracks spreading that spring through the structures of global politics. The Berlin Wall fell a few months later, in November. The Soviet Union fissured and then disappeared. Democratic and free-market revolutions and revivals swept through Central Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Ethnic, religious, and territorial conflicts, long subdued by the cold war, erupted one after another. The world was remade, tossed, liberated—and reopened for international business.

The Valdez wreck stunned Exxon and its rising leader, Lee Raymond. The disaster would change the corporation profoundly. Internal reforms imposed by Raymond in response to the accident would turn one of America’s oldest, most rigid corporations into an even harder, leaner place of rule books and fear-inspiring management techniques. At the same time, Raymond and the rest of Exxon’s leaders would gradually pass through the introspection triggered by the Valdez spill and seek out the oil and gas plays that opened so unexpectedly after 1989. An age of empire beckoned America and Exxon alike.

In a bracingly short time, Anglo-American optimism and idealism about free markets, foreign investment, and the rule of law found adherents in the most unlikely world capitals. Brand-new nations brimming with oil and gas and others previously closed to Western corporations hung out FOR LEASE signs to lure geologists from Houston and London: Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Angola, Qatar, and tiny Equatorial Guinea, on the West African coast, soon to market itself through its Washington lobbyists as the “Kuwait of Africa.” These post–cold war opportunities for American, British, French, and Italian oil companies could be ambiguous, risky, and sometimes fleeting. Resentful nationalism and suspicion of the United States and Europe persisted in many capitals of the new oil powers. State-owned petroleum companies from China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere were rising quickly as competitors. Exxon might be America’s largest and most powerful oil corporation, but it would require all the political influence, financial resources, dazzling technology, speed, and stamina that its leaders could muster to seize the lucrative oil deals made possible by communism’s fall and global capitalism’s revival.

The United States now stood unchallenged as a worldwide military power. Exxon’s empire would increasingly overlap with America’s, but the two were hardly contiguous. Pentagon policy, after the Soviet Union’s demise, sought to keep international sea-lanes free; to reduce the global danger of nuclear war, terrorism, and transnational crime; to manage or contain Russia and China; to secure Israel; and to foster, against long odds, a stable Middle East from which oil supplies vital for global economic growth could flow freely. Exxon benefited from the new markets and global commerce that American military hegemony now protected. Yet the corporation’s activity also complicated American foreign policy; Exxon’s far-flung interests were at times distinct from Washington’s. Lee Raymond would manage Exxon’s global position after 1989 as a confident sovereign, a peer of the White House’s rotating occupants. Raymond aligned Exxon with America, but he was not always in sync; he was more akin to the president of France or the chancellor of Germany. He did not manage the corporation as a subordinate instrument of American foreign policy; his was a private empire.

Exxon’s power within the United States derived from an independent, even rebellious lineage. The corporation had been hived off from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly in 1911, after a bruising antitrust campaign led by economic reformers and populist politicians. The visceral hostility toward Washington sometimes eschewed by Exxon executives eight decades later suggested some of them had still not gotten over it.

Exxon’s size and the nature of its business model meant that it functioned as a corporate state within the American state. Like its forebearer, Standard, Exxon proved across decades that it was one of the most powerful businesses ever produced by American capitalism. From the 1950s through the end of the cold war, Exxon ranked year after year as one of the country’s very largest and most profitable corporations, always in the top five of the annual Fortune 500 lists. Its profit performance proved far more consistent and durable than that of other great corporate behemoths of America’s postwar boom, such as General Motors, United States Steel, and I.B.M. In 1959, Exxon ranked as the second-largest American corporation by revenue and profit; four decades later it was third. And more than any of its corporate peers, Exxon’s trajectory now pointed straight up. The corporation’s revenues would grow fourfold during the two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its profits would smash all American records.

As it expanded, Exxon refined its own foreign, security, and economic policies. In some of the faraway countries where it did business, because of the scale of its investments, Exxon’s sway over local politics and security was greater than that of the United States embassy. In impoverished African countries increasingly important to Exxon’s strategy, such as Chad, the weight of the corporation’s investments and the cash flow it shared with local governments overwhelmed the economy and became the central prize in violent local contests for power. In Moscow and Beijing, Exxon’s independent power and negotiating agenda competed with and sometimes attracted more attention than the démarches issued by American secretaries of state. Yet the corporation could also be insular and even passive in the faraway places where it acquired and produced oil and gas. It fenced off local operations and separated its workforce from upheaval outside its gates. If its oil fl owed and its contract terms remained intact, then Exxon often followed a directive of minimal interference in local politics, especially if those politics were controversial, as in the case of the African dictatorships with which the corporation partnered, or the countries, such as Indonesia and Venezuela, where civil conflict swirled around Exxon properties. In Washington, Exxon was a more confident and explicit political actor. The corporation’s lobbyists bent and shaped American foreign policy, as well as economic, climate, chemical, and environmental regulation. Exxon maintained all-weather alliances with sympathetic American politicians while calling as little attention to its influence as possible.

The cold war’s end signaled a coming era when nongovernmental actors—corporations, philanthropies, terrorist cells, and media networks— all gained relative power. Exxon’s size, insularity, and ideology made its position distinct. Unlike Walmart or Google (to name two other multinational corporations that would rise after 1989 to global influence), the object of Exxon’s business model lay buried beneath the earth. Exxon drilled holes in the ground and then operated its oil and gas wells for many years, and so its business imperatives were linked to the control of physical territory. Increasingly, the oil and gas Exxon produced was located in poor or unstable countries. Its treasure was subject to capture or political theft by coup makers or guerrilla movements, and so the corporation became involved in small wars and kidnapping rackets that many other international companies could gratefully avoid.

The time horizons for Exxon’s investments stretched out longer than those of almost any government it lobbied. “We see governments come and go,” Lee Raymond once remarked, an observation that was particularly true of Washington, with its constitutionally term-limited presidency. Exxon’s investments in a particular oil and gas field could be premised on a production life span of forty or more years. During that time, the United States might change its president and its foreign and energy policies at least half a dozen times. Overseas, a project’s host country might pass through multiple coups and political upheavals during the same four decades. It behooved Exxon to develop influence and lobbying strategies to manage or evade political volatility.

American spies and diplomats who occasionally migrated to work at Exxon discovered a corporate system of secrecy, nondisclosure agreements, and internal security that matched some of the most compartmented black boxes of the world’s intelligence agencies. The corporation’s information control systems guarded proprietary industrial data but also sought to protect its long-term strategic position by minimizing its visibility. Exxon’s executives deflected press coverage; they withheld cooperation from congressional investigators, if the letter of the law allowed; and they typically spoke in public by reading out sanitized, carefully edited speeches or PowerPoint slides. Their strategy worked: Exxon made a fetish of rules, but it rarely had to justify or explain publicly how it operated when the rules were gray.

As the Valdez wreck made obvious, Exxon’s massive daily operations—soon to produce 1.5 billion barrels of oil and gas pumped from the ground each year, and 50 billion gallons of gasoline sold worldwide—posed huge environmental risks. After the Valdez, Exxon would become again, as it had been in the first decades of Standard Oil’s existence, the most hated oil company in America.

When gasoline prices soared, American commuters felt powerless before its influence. In effect, Exxon was America’s energy policy. Certainly there was no governmental policy of comparable coherence. After fitful, failed efforts to wean itself from imported oil during the 1970s, the United States had evolved no effective government-led energy strategy. Its de facto policy was the operation of free markets amid a jumble of patchwork subsidies, contradictory rules, and weak regulatory agencies. The very weakness of policy favored Exxon. As the public’s frustration grew over rising pump prices and dependence on oil imports that transferred billions of dollars to hostile regimes overseas, Exxon became a natural lightning rod. The corporation managed this criticism with the same coolheaded patience and indifference that it employed to endure political risk in tinpot African dictatorships. Compromise was not the Exxon way.

Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Author's Note xi

Selected Cast Of Characters xiii

Prologue. "I'm Going to the White House on This" 1

Part 1 The End of Easy Oil

1 "One Right Answer" 25

2 "Iron Ass" 42

3 "Is the Earth Really Warming?" 67

4 "Do You Really Want Us as an Enemy?" 93

5 "Unknown Injury" 122

6 "E.G. Month!" 137

7 "The Camel and the Jackal" 154

8 "We Target Oil Companies" 177

9 "Real Men-They Discover Oil" 194

10 "It's Not Quite as Bad as It Sounds" 213

11 "The Haifa Pipeline" 227

12 "How High Can We Fly?" 250

13 "Assisted Regime Change" 280

14 "Informed Influentials" 301

Part 2 The Risk Cycle

15 "On My Honor" 331

16 "Chad Can Live Without Oil" 349

17 "I Pray for Exxon" 371

18 "We Will Need Witnesses" 394

19 "The Cash Waterfall" 408

20 "Moonshine" 435

21 "Can't the C.I.A. and the Navy Solve This Problem?" 451

22 "A Person Would Have to Eat More Than 3,400 Rubber Ducks" 478

23 "We Must End the Age Of Oil" 495

24 "Are We Out? Or In?" 508

25 "It's Not My Money to Tithe" 534

26 "We're Confident You Can Book the Reserves" 557

27 "One Plus One Has Got to Equal Three" 576

28 "It Just Happened" 601

Acknowledgments 625

Notes 629

Bibliography 659

Index 665

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Winner of The Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award

A 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

One of Financial Times' Best Books of 2012
“ExxonMobil has met its match in Coll, an elegant writer and dogged reporter… extraordinary… monumental.
The Washington Post

Fascinating… Private Empire is a book meticulously prepared as if for trial, a lawyerly accumulation of information that lets the facts speak for themselves… a compelling and elucidatory work.”

Private Empire is meticulous, multi-angled and valuable… Mr. Coll’s prose sweeps the earth like an Imax camera.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"ExxonMobil has cut a ruthless path through the Age of Oil. Yet intense secrecy has kept one of the world's largest companies a mystery, until now. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power is a masterful study of Big Oil's biggest player… Coll's in-depth reporting, buttressed by his anecdotal prose, make Private Empire a must-read. Consider Private Empire a sequel of sorts to The Prize, Daniel Yergin's Pulitzer-winning history of the oil industry… Coll's portrait of ExxonMobil is both riveting and appalling… Yet Private Empire is not so much an indictment as a fascinating look into American business and politics. With each chapter as forceful as a New Yorker article, the book abounds in Dickensian characters.”
San Francisco Chronicle

"Coll makes clear in his magisterial account that Exxon is mighty almost beyond imagining, producing more profit than any American company in the history of profit, the ultimate corporation in 'an era of corporate ascendancy.' This history of its last two decades is therefore a revealing history of our time, a chronicle of the intersection between energy and politics."
—Bill McKibben, New York Review of Books

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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
BrokenTeepee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a door stopper of a book. I haven't had a real hefty book for a bit and it was a real delight to sit and hold a real solid book again. And what a book it was. Starting with the the Exxon Valdez spill and book-ending with the Deepwater Horizon disaster Private Empire details the arrogance that is ExxonMobil.Mr. Coll's writing style is easy even when explaining oil extraction methods or the geopolitics of oil and natural gas rights. It reads almost like a suspense novel except that it's all true. And that is what makes it so scary. I found myself turning page after page reeling at my naivete. I think I want to go back to being uninformed. It's a happier state of mind.Mr. Coll's research for the book was quite extensive and the book is heavily footnoted. He conducted over 400 interviews with people great and small and he weaves what they shared together with facts gathered from all over the world to take the reader on a ride from oil fields to the offices of political power in this country and beyond. It was utterly fascinating to get a peak inside the Borg like culture of Exxon. Tow the company line or find another job.I have not enjoyed a non fiction book this much in a long, long time. I just wish I wasn't so surprised at what I learned.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Steve Coll¿s massive volume (28 chapters, 684 pages, plus an extensive list of footnotes) on the history of ExxonMobil focuses primarily on the company¿s last two decades. That the decades are bookended by two the worst oil spill disasters in the history of the oil industry is no accident. Coll is likely trying to make the point that oil companies learned little from the horror that was the 1989 Alaskan spill by the Exxon Valdez tanker. Perhaps inadvertently, he also highlights just how complicated and dangerous is the business of exploring and transporting the energy that world economies will depend upon for several decades to come. The odds are that we have not seen the last of such spills. John D. Rockerfeller¿s Standard Oil Company became so dominant, that dedicated ¿trust busters¿ and the U.S. Supreme Court, split it into several individual oil companies in 1911. But as happened when AT&T broke apart several decades later, some of the pieces would decide it was smarter to recombine into mini-versions of the original parent company. ExxonMobil, a combination of two companies split from the original Standard Oil all those years ago, is now the largest oil company in the world.What makes Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power so intriguing is the author¿s focus on the political and economic influence ExxonMobil exerts around the world. The company¿s revenues are, in fact, large enough to rank it the twenty-first largest ¿nation state¿ on the planet. ExxonMobil¿s ability to come into remote areas and create revenue streams to whatever government they find there makes it more powerful and influential in parts of the world than the U.S. government (or any other government, for that matter) can claim to be. Lee Raymond, the man in charge for most of the period detailed in Private Empire, knew that he and his company would be around for the long haul ¿ long after many government leaders, especially American presidents, had come and gone. As Raymond watched the rotation of American presidents ¿ and spent ExxonMobil¿s money to help those he favored remain in office as long as possible ¿ he knew he could safely put the interests of ExxonMobil first, and those of the United States a distant second. And there was little anyone could do about it even if they wanted to.Critics of Big Oil, especially those who criticize the industry because of its unwillingness to embrace fully the concept of global warming, will read much in the book that will anger them. Lee Raymond was a nonbeliever, and he did everything in his power to delay any environmental action that would negatively impact ExxonMobil¿s ability to do business as usual (as Coll points out, the company stance has changed since Raymond was succeeded by Rex Tillerson). Raymond, on the other hand, did build, and rigidly enforce, a culture of safety that made oil spills and other environmental accidents as unlikely as they could possibly be. The man understood the power of public opinion and he tried to keep it on his side.It is impossible even to touch on all the issues contained in Private Empire. There are whole chapters on ExxonMobil¿s struggles with security problems around the world and how the efforts to keep employees and company assets secure often required the company¿s close cooperation with some of the most brutal dictators in world history. Other chapters look at the ultimate impact of all the cash the company poured into third world countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East ¿ what has become known as the ¿resource curse.¿ Strikingly, when poor countries suddenly strike it rich in natural resources they often move backward rather than ahead, something akin to what happens to so many unprepared lottery winners. ExxonMobil has seen this happen, first hand, more than once.Readers willing to tackle Private Empire will be rewarded for their efforts. As a forty-year veteran of the industry (with some of those years spent in third wor
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been a fan of mr.coll's previous works based upon the simple abundancec of verifiable information, not necessarily because i agree with every conclusion. As with any work that involves something people feel strongly about, read the information and draw a conclusion, i think this book enables the reader to do that. I recommend it and look forward ro re-listening to it in the future to see if i feel differently about it after time and other books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Man_Of_La_Book_Dot_Com More than 1 year ago
Pri­vate Empire: Exxon­Mo­bil and Amer­i­can Power by Steve Coll is a non-fiction book about the influ­ence Exxon­Mo­bil yields over world econ­omy and pol­i­tics. While the book has many aspects of the company’s agenda, whether it be sci­ence or pol­i­tics, with clar­ity and zest. The book is com­posed of 28 chap­ters, includ­ing excel­lent foot­notes and is divided into two parts. Part I is called The End of Easy Oil and part II is called The Risk Cycle. Instead of devot­ing another whole book (or two) for the com­plete his­tory of the com­pany, Mr. Coll chose to start with the Exxon Valdez inci­dent in March 1989 which shaped the com­pany as we know it today. The Exxon Valdez inci­dent was a defin­ing moment for the com­pany and is cov­ered in detail. It is a proper begin­ning (even though not “the” begin­ning) because it clearly shows how future CEO Lee Ray­mond would revamp Exxon’s struc­ture and behav­ior using the tragedy. Pri­vate Empire: Exxon­Mo­bil and Amer­i­can Power by Steve Coll is a com­pelling book about one of the biggest, most pow­er­ful and influ­en­tial Amer­i­can com­pa­nies ever cre­ated. One aspect of this book is fas­ci­nat­ing; the other is a dis­turb­ing to real­ize the sway a pri­vate entity has over the affairs of the union. Mr. Coll, a Pulitzer Prize win­ning author, quickly goes through the his­tory of the com­pany, from its incep­tion by John D. Rock­e­feller as Stan­dard Oil, through its break up by Trust Busters in 1911, the emer­gence of Exxon and the merger with Mobil Oil. Together with the United States, Exxon grew in power through­out the 20th Cen­tury to dom­i­nate the world’s oil mar­ket and wield sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal power. The author chose to write around the tenure of CEO Lee Ray­mond to tell the story. Through Raymond’s eyes the reader under­stands how deci­sions are made, gov­ern­ments come and go and the rise of this global pri­vate empire. The chap­ters I found fas­ci­nat­ing, and a bit fright­en­ing to be hon­est, were the ones involv­ing ExxonMobile’s secu­rity forces. After an exec­u­tive Sid­ney Reso has been kid­napped and killed Mr. Ray­mond revamped the com­pany from a secu­rity per­spec­tive. Essen­tially Exxon­Mo­bil became its own state with inter­nal secu­rity (filled with ex Secret Ser­vice agents), jet fleets, sol­diers (work­ing for Exxon­Mo­bil or for a for­eign gov­ern­ment which the com­pany paid) and a new build­ing designed for secrecy in Dal­las, TX. In all its rigid­ity, Exxon­Mo­bil changes with the times. After “invest­ing” $722,000 in polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee money in 2008 (I call it bribes), the com­pany decided to sup­port a car­bon tax once Obama was elected, adjust­ing its stance to con­tinue its close rela­tion­ship with Washington’s new administration. Through­out the book it is tol
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Before you critique any book, may I show you the function of spell-check?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im not here fr se.x im here to meet ew epople. Thats what my friend says it was she said it was a get to gether
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was written for the reader that wants a book to be long in reading. There are a a lot of repetitive information. I love economics but this book was the most trying I have ever read. The title was catching and peaked my interest but the insides couldn't keep me interested
brad58 More than 1 year ago
Got this book based on an interview on NPR with the author. Interesting from the point of view of how much influence and "reality" almost unlimited money can buy. The NPR reviewer was appalled at how Exxon was heavily funding the science calling into question global warming while the research arm was studying how they could use global warming to find and exploit oil. Not really surprising, if you think about it.
RedRagingRhino More than 1 year ago
Coll presents a fierce narrative on an oversized corporation that wields enormous power over the globe. If you do not figure out that the mega transnational corporations are in reality authoritarian governments serving a tiny elite, then you are not paying attention.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im a female!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Your also sick!!#! Go get a life in real world instead of being a virtual nerd!!!!!!!!!!!!#######!!!!!!!:D
firesidereader2 More than 1 year ago
Frightening yet true. Disturbingly on-point and revealing. Makes me want to hide my head in the sand or scream from the nearest rooftop--or vote Democratic. Yeah, that last one is the only one that really might work. Thanks to the author for putting this truth out there; it took guts, and I'm sure many ideologues will still be in denial...but let them do the legwork to try to disprove it.
chairo More than 1 year ago
So very maney of us in this country are reall, really tired of all the print media that is written from a slanted PC or liberal point of view. You can take any data and turn it into only one point of view and that is what I object to in this muck-raking, yellow journalism world view of this author and the publishing company behind him. Want to get Mr. Obama re-elected? Just write and publish books as this one. Written so one sided, Coll's book is profe our system works and also proves you can use our system to distart the true picture of a great company. Chairo