ExxonMobil acts like a nation-state unto itself. But we can’t expect it to change its ways until we do.
Raymond’s anti-environmentalism, Coll reports, was forged in the Valdez disaster. He came to believe that environmental campaigners, in resisting the corporation’s plans to use chemical dispersants in the immediate wake of the spill, actually made the disaster worse. The point was debatable, Coll reports; but at least Raymond had a better case here than he later did on global warming.
In 1997, as the Kyoto Protocol loomed, Raymond spent “thirty-three paragraphs of [a] seventy-eight-paragraph speech” in Beijing denying global warming. Trained as a chemist, Raymond was that paradoxical but statistically common phenomenon: a highly intelligent conservative whose intellectual gifts seemed to make him even more dogged and inflexible than conservatives who are less knowledgeable or educated. At a 2000 shareholder meeting, Raymond even cited an oft-debunked “petition,” allegedly signed by 17,000 scientists skeptical of global warming, to back up his case. Just one tiny problem: The petition’s signatures “included those of pop musicians such as the Spice Girls and James Brown,” notes Coll wryly.
And Raymond enforced his denialist view throughout the corporation. “They had come to the conclusion that the whole debate around global warming was kind of a hoax,” says one of Coll’s inside sources. “Nobody inside Exxon dared question that.” What’s more, the corporation’s think-tank echo chamber, funded by its largesse, included groups that took stances considerably more radical than the company itself did. In 2003, for instance, the ExxonMobil-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the federal government from “disseminating” a Clinton-era report on the consequences of global warming on the United States. Attempting to block the spread of science through the courts is a dramatic action indeed, one in which ExxonMobil was at least indirectly implicated through its funding.
ExxonMobil’s behavior on global warming was of a piece with its interference in science in other areas. In one enraging chapter, Coll reports on a team of company scientists (and lawyers) who tracked and harassed a group of government researchers who had been tasked with analyzing the ecological costs of the Valdez spill. One of the government scientists ultimately quit his job, tired of answering all the Freedom of Information Act requests from ExxonMobil’s team. “We’re all scientists—we didn’t sign up to do that,” he told Coll. Elsewhere, Coll tells the tale of a sociologist who got a call from the company, inviting him to prepare research that could prove handy in litigation in exchange for a paycheck. (Instead, the researcher spilled the beans about his experience with corporate-funded science.) “ExxonMobil’s science bore all the hallmarks of the corporation’s worldwide strategy,” writes Coll. “It was well funded, carried out by highly competent individuals, unrelenting in its focus on core business issues, and influenced by the litigation strategies of aggressive lawyers.”
Of all ExxonMobil’s transgressions, the bankrolling of climate-change denial comes off as the worst one in Coll’s account. Even climate campaigners who have watched the company closely will find new revelations here. But the book focuses even more extensively on the company’s presence in unstable or war-torn areas like Indonesia’s Aceh province and Nigeria—where, Coll explains, ExxonMobil arguably made matters worse just by being there, and by doing what it does so well.
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.
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