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.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power By Steve Coll • Penguin Press• 2012 • 704 pages • $36

In early 2009, just in time for the Obama years, CEO Rex Tillerson introduced the world to the new ExxonMobil. In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, he reversed the company’s longstanding denial of global warming, calling manmade climate change an “important global issue.” That may not sound like much, but it represented a significant departure from the views of his predecessor, longtime CEO Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, who had rejected outright what scientists know about our effect on the planet.

Tillerson then went on to propose a policy solution for dealing with climate change that perfectly captured the company’s way of dealing with the world. Looking askance at the baroque complexity of cap-and-trade proposals (which many oil-industry rivals were backing, but which would later die in the U.S. Senate), he announced that ExxonMobil would support a simple, across-the-board tax on carbon emissions—a policy that had little or no chance of becoming reality.

At the time, critics assumed that the company was proposing a “poison pill” to undermine cap-and-trade. But if so, they didn’t know ExxonMobil. When the company took a stance, it always stood by it—solidly, implacably. Tillerson wasn’t going to admit that his predecessor had been wrong to deny global warming—or to fund think tanks that attacked climate science and sought to sow doubt in the public’s mind about it—but he wasn’t going to engage in political posturing, either. That wasn’t the ExxonMobil way. Instead, he offered what he truly viewed as the simplest, most sensible solution.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power is international investigative journalist Steve Coll’s massive and sprawling book about this massive and sprawling company. It achieves what we might once have considered impossible: The company’s string of transgressions notwithstanding, Coll helps us understand, and even occasionally admire, the ExxonMobil view of the world. This isn’t revisionism, or the rehabilitation of a villain: Coll knows nothing will erase ExxonMobil’s costly and irresponsible role in the denial of global warming—a behavior, he writes, that future employees are “likely to look back on with regret.” But his portrait of the country’s largest oil and gas company just might leave you awed at the Tiger’s sheer force of will. And it captures, most of all, the staggering and largely unaccountable power of this worldwide moneymaking machine—one of the most successful corporate behemoths we’ve yet seen.

The saga of ExxonMobil in the modern era begins, in Coll’s account (and in any other conceivable one), with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which befouled Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound. The tanker wreck dumped more than 250,000 barrels of oil, killing off several thousand sea otters, a quarter of a million seabirds, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Not only was the spill environmentally devastating, but its victims were highly telegenic—and within a matter of days, it seemed, the whole world was outraged at Exxon. While the disaster had obvious and direct causes (like Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood’s drinking habit), Coll traces indirect factors as well, including a decade of market-driven staffing cuts that ate into the company’s environmental and spill-response capacity. Fully 40 percent of Exxon’s job positions vanished in the seven years before the Valdez ran aground.

The man who helped design those cuts—and the dominant, almost preternatural force in Coll’s narrative—is Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil’s president and then CEO during both its greatest successes and also its greatest controversies. A rigid, authoritarian character, Raymond was the central factor behind the corporation’s uncompromising and increasingly impolitic denial of global warming. He also brewed a way of reporting the corporation’s booked oil reserves that, Coll suggests, may have misled many on Wall Street. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations barred oil companies from reporting their tar-sands holdings as part of their total reserves because of the different type of measures required to extract these resources. Raymond considered this nonsense, so he counted the company’s tar-sands holdings in his communications with investors—“ExxonMobil math,” Coll calls it—while telling the SEC a different tale.

And yet no one can deny that Raymond presided over record-breaking profits, a safety record that suggested true penitence after the Valdez spill, and a doubling of the company’s share price over the course of the George W. Bush Administration (a fitting time period for analysis, as Raymond was good friends with Dick Cheney). From the shareholder’s point of view, he took a company moored on the rocks (literally so, in the case of the Valdez) and charted a new and wildly successful course for it.

Coll’s narrative presents the 20-year saga of how Exxon (which became ExxonMobil in 1999) bounced back from the low of the Valdez spill and, under Raymond’s guidance, triumphed in the dawning era of post-communist global resource exploitation. From Equatorial Guinea to Nigeria, from Qatar to Venezuela, the company danced with dictators, fended off pirates and kidnappers, and weathered the occasional coup attempt—always putting its own goals first (although naturally, it called on the U.S. government in a pinch). The chief objective: ensuring that the company was able to replace the oil reserves it depleted on an annual basis, a task that left little margin for error.

This necessity of showing investors that the company had acquired a wealth of new “equity oil” each year was a legacy of the wave of governmental oil expropriations in the Middle East and elsewhere during the 1970s. With much of the globe’s oil wealth now in government hands, investors worried about the long-term sustainability of private oil companies like ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell. The reserve-replacement challenge bedeviled Raymond throughout his time at the helm, driving not only the Mobil merger but global deals and alliances with characters like Teodoro Obiang, the ruthless dictator of Equatorial Guinea who, by the end of Coll’s narrative, has thoroughly cashed in on his ExxonMobil allegiance—having his reputation rehabilitated enough to take a photo with President Obama. (Not everybody handles oil wealth so sagely, though: Coll reports that Obiang’s playboy son—who spent ExxonMobil-derived oil money buying fast cars and California mansions, and cutting rap albums—was being sued by the Justice Department.)

The beneficiaries of oil wealth may have been out partying, but within ExxonMobil itself, Coll reveals a neurotic culture of strict control. After the Valdez spill, Exxon felt like public enemy number one—and indeed, later focus-group research showed that the company’s name and the disaster were freely associated with each other by about half of the public. In the face of this, a siege mentality developed within the company. Raymond’s ExxonMobil set out strict systems and protocols, including a maniacal focus on safety—all the way down to monitoring in-office paper cuts. Driving too fast was also a big no-no: Corporate vehicles had electronic systems to monitor drivers’ speeds, all across the globe. Speeding could be a firing offense.

The company’s culture was white, male, Christian, and abstemious. And it reflected a curious paradox: While academic scientists lean heavily toward political liberalism, the same is not necessarily true of engineers—and especially not ExxonMobil’s. The battle to ascend in this corporate hierarchy was intense—“dog eat dog competition under the patina of working together,” one former executive griped. “Restless free thinkers and habitual dissenters who accidentally got hired (often as scientists) tended to decide quickly that they would be happier elsewhere,” notes Coll.

Over it all presided Raymond—head of the strict-father family, a man to be respected and feared. His office was dubbed the “God Pod”: a 20,000-square-foot executive suite at ExxonMobil’s campus-like headquarters in Irving, Texas that served just five top execs. But of course, Raymond was often away—flying around in the corporate jet named “Number One Hundred Alpha.” Onboard, the flight attendants were trained to bring him “a glass of milk with popcorn in it.” Raymond didn’t just fly for business: He was a golf aficionado and owned several million-dollar homes spread across the United States.

Raymond was a South Dakotan by birth, a Catholic by conversion, and a chemical engineer by training. He was a tough guy outwardly, but also had a conservative man’s weeping streak, a la Glenn Beck. In Coll’s account, his toughness seems part true character, but also part strategy—a means of governing a far-flung corporation where he couldn’t monitor all the parts closely. You can’t say it didn’t work: Raymond’s triumphs included the merger with Mobil, which gave the corporation access to a vast set of oil-reserve assets, and efficiency strides that, in turn, translated into unheard-of profits.

As the 2000s dawned, though, ExxonMobil’s board thought it was time for new leadership. The public had relentlessly negative views of the company—a growing liability, especially when it came to fending off tort claims in court, but also for the purposes of finding and retaining scientific talent.

Enter Rex Tillerson, a man who, in comparison to Raymond, comes across as a milquetoast. About the most interesting thing that Coll has to tell us about him (and it doesn’t at all seem like Coll’s fault) is that he was an Eagle Scout, and fond of drawing not-so-deep lessons from the scouting view of the world. Tillerson had distinguished himself making overseas deals for the company. Like Raymond, he was born a Christian in the heartland; his youthful reading of Atlas Shrugged further suggests an ideology similar to Raymond’s. Yet Tillerson lacked Raymond’s fire and domineering nature—and his flair.

But that’s exactly what ExxonMobil needed; it was time for a change. “We never set out for the company to be public enemy number one,” Tillerson tells Coll. And during his tenure, ExxonMobil’s approval ratings slowly began to creep back. Nowadays, the company isn’t even the world’s chief environmental villain any more—climate campaigners have trained their sights on the Koch brothers; and BP’s name was blackened by the Gulf oil spill even worse than Exxon’s was after the Valdez. Not only did ExxonMobil survive it all, then—it thrives and thrives, and most recently, bought its way into the booming U.S. shale gas market with its acquisition of XTO Energy in 2009.

Raymond, meanwhile, now lives off his nearly $400 million retirement package—and in light of the company’s market valuation and position, it’s hard to say he didn’t earn it.

Coll splits his book about evenly between the Raymond and Tillerson eras; the contrast between the two is sharp enough that he might almost have subtitled the work “War and Peace.” The story he tells is character based, which helps the reader remain anchored as chapters flit across the world and different issue areas. But the characters are not all equally intriguing. The Raymond era is by far the more dramatic part of the story, and the book inevitably feels rather front-loaded.

In Coll’s account, ExxonMobil’s undermining of climate science becomes just one aspect of the company’s across-the-board rigidity. If ExxonMobil was in the right on an issue, it would stand its ground doggedly. If it was in the wrong, it would do precisely the same thing. And on this topic, it was very, very wrong.

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.

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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