Issue #25, Summer 2012

Untamed Tiger

ExxonMobil acts like a nation-state unto itself. But we can’t expect it to change its ways until we do.

Coll lingers on a theory in international relations called the “resource curse”: When unstable countries discover that they’re blessed by natural-resource wealth and let in companies like ExxonMobil to help them exploit it, they seem to slide backward, rather than move forward along the path of development. Again and again, the flush of newfound oil wealth drives corruption and violence, as political contenders seek to unseat the existing regime—which itself tends to become dissolute, and often fails to share the wealth with the struggling population.

Such is the story of ExxonMobil’s influence abroad—but the question raised by Coll’s narrative is just how much responsibility the company bears for what happened in various countries. Clearly, in chasing after new oil reserves, ExxonMobil got itself into some nasty situations. For instance, it was contractually bound to pay the Indonesian military for security in Aceh Province, even as that military was, to quote Coll, “engaged in appalling human rights violations” in its suppression of guerillas. It didn’t help that ExxonMobil, in typical Raymond style, seemed to shrug at human-rights concerns, even as the company’s competitors (like Royal Dutch Shell) showed much more serious engagement with the issues.

That’s different, though, from saying that ExxonMobil was ever directly involved in the human-rights crimes, sometimes horrid ones, that can be laid at the feet of the regimes with which it worked. There’s a realpolitik aspect to Raymond’s international strategy, and to Coll’s reporting on it, that may outrage activists who protest the company’s role in Indonesia and elsewhere. But for ExxonMobil, reserve repletion—and the almighty dollar—counted above all else.

As someone who has been highly critical of ExxonMobil’s interferences in climate science, I had a mixed response to Private Empire. On the one hand, the book proves that on this issue, ExxonMobil under Raymond was perhaps even worse than we knew. But the company has also become much better since Raymond’s departure, making Tillerson into a kind of unassuming hero.

The climate issue notwithstanding, at other parts of the narrative I couldn’t help cheering the corporation on, particularly as it applied its rigidity in dealing with dictators. Most priceless was ExxonMobil’s stunning use of the American legal process to seize $300 million from a clueless Hugo Chavez after the Venezuelan strongman broke a contract with the company and tried to extort more money out of it—whereupon he got exactly what he deserved.

Ultimately, Coll’s book teaches a lesson to those of us who have long been suspicious of corporate interference in science—namely, nuance. ExxonMobil under Raymond was indeed guilty of these things; but Raymond seems a particularly unique case. Not every corporation, or every corporate leader, presents such a stark combination of rigidity, ideological audacity, and tight friendship with the vice president of the United States (who happened to see the world much as Raymond saw it). Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Chevron were always more environmentally moderate and reasonable than ExxonMobil; for example, Shell was a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership pushing for cap-and-trade legislation in partnership with environmental groups. Lately, ExxonMobil has started to catch up.

If there’s a criticism to be made of Coll’s book, it’s not in his deeply sourced reporting—it’s in his control over the subject matter. The book goes everywhere and back again; its narrative can be hard to follow. Coll also does a better job reporting on ExxonMobil’s attacks on science than on science itself (the greenhouse effect does not trap sunlight!).

There have been a lot of comparisons lately between ExxonMobil and a very, very different kind of titan—Apple. It is only within the last year that the glitzy tech wizard surpassed the oil giant in market capitalization, making it the largest private company in the world. The contrast couldn’t be sharper: the old and the new, the hated and the loved, the conservative and the liberal, the Texan and the Californian. But after reading Coll’s book, you come to realize that one of the fixed beliefs that ExxonMobil was almost certainly right to hold is that we probably aren’t getting off oil any time soon. Peak oil isn’t here, and those who keep forecasting it underestimate the power of new technologies—deepwater drilling, fracking of deep shales—to open new oil and gas reserves. In the meantime, drilling remains not only our present, but our unavoidable future. The same goes for a much warmer planet.

ExxonMobil will most assuredly shift its business once we shift our habits. But as Americans, we’ve never been in much of a hurry to move away from oil. It’s hard, ultimately, to expect much better of this corporation than we expect of ourselves. In the end, then, Coll’s ExxonMobil is much like the resource that it exploits: vast, enduring, implacable—and unnerving.


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Issue #25, Summer 2012

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