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'Private Empire': the secretive world of ExxonMobil
Steve Coll's latest book, "Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power" is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's in-depth look at what he calls "a corporate state within the American state." Coll discusses his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
Steve CollThe author of "Private Empire" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, downtown branch, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
The title of Steve Coll's latest opus uses the kind of sweeping language — Empire — that could inspire eyes to roll, arousing suspicion of overstatement. But in "Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power" (Penguin Press, 685 pp., $36), Coll makes his case, powerfully and persuasively, leaving little doubt of ExxonMobil's reach within the world and its impact upon it.
So much about ExxonMobil is dizzying. There are the numbers: tens of thousands of employees; millions of shareholders; tens of billions of dollars in annual profit, more than any other corporation headquartered in the United States.
Then there's the corporation's global footprint. Coll, who earlier wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ghost Wars," takes readers from the United States to Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Qatar, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Canada and Iraq, in every instance writing with the authority that comes with doing four years of research.
At the core of Coll's book is the question of corporate responsibility. For those who believe a corporation's societal obligations extend no further than generating jobs and profits — for an example of this mindset, see many reader comments on The Seattle Times' recent series about Amazon — this book will be one drawn-out irritant.
For others, Coll's work will be a stunning description and dissection of a corporation's struggles to balance technical expertise with occasional forays into social engineering. Coll labels ExxonMobil "a corporate state within the American state," and he goes deep on the company's policy decisions and the consequences that follow.
In its relentless drive to replace oil and gas reserves, ExxonMobil has elected to do business with dictators and, at times, partner with soldiers and sailors accused of human-rights atrocities and acts of piracy.
When oil and gas money flows into a country, where do all the dollars go? Nigeria has taken in $400 billion, but "nine-tenths of the population lived on two dollars a day or less," Coll writes. Meanwhile, in Equatorial Guinea, another West African country with rich oil reserves, one of the president's sons spends lavishly on speedboats, a Gulfstream V private jet and dozens of luxury cars, "including two $1.5 million Bugatti Veyrons."
If the legal fiction of "corporate personhood" is extended beyond the courtroom, what kind of person is ExxonMobil? Rigid. Smart. Insular, priggish and dismissive of lesser mortals. Exxon moved from Manhattan to Texas because Texas fit, and there's always been something to this offshoot of Standard Oil that others find just a tad creepy. At one point its top five leaders — white men, all — had a combined 14 sons and not a single daughter.
In pursuing its goals — shushing fears about climate change, sounding alarms about punitive damages — ExxonMobil uses all kinds of tactics that could be considered underhanded. Coll details the use of front organizations and how ExxonMobil has employed public-records laws and the IRS to mess with its adversaries.
At the same time, Coll takes pains to be fair. "Private Empire" gives full voice to the challenges and complexities of ExxonMobil's work, and gives credit when due.
After the Exxon Valdez spilled 257,000 barrels of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, the company became so consumed with safety and risk management that even paper cuts became reportable injuries. That focus paid off. In 2010, when BP spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the company's safety record was so atrocious that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited BP for 760 willful violations in the few years preceding the accident.
During the same time frame, ExxonMobil had one.
Ken Armstrong: email@example.com. A Seattle Times reporter, Armstrong is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity," winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.