What lies beneath the hood of the world’s largest oil company?
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

When a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner produces a book on America’s second-biggest corporation—and by far the biggest anything headquartered in Texas—it’s a major literary event. The book, New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Penguin Press, $36), is the size of a largemouth bass and, unless I’m mistaken, likely to be a topic of debate at any dinner party you attend this year in Highland Park or River Oaks.

I know what you’re thinking: here comes another Texas-bashing Yankee intent on beating up another greedy oil company. The publicity materials for Private Empire do little to dissuade one of this notion, billing the book as “a jaw-dropping narrative of just how deeply ExxonMobil’s power reaches.” But Coll is no cheap-shot artist. The picture he paints of the Irving-based ExxonMobil is more nuanced than one might expect.

Coll starts his narrative with the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, in 1989; his focus is almost entirely on the company’s past 23 years, a period that saw Exxon gobble up Mobil, post the highest profits of any corporation in human history, and, in the process, wake up to find itself operating in all sorts of nasty Third World statelets where Mobil had production facilities. This isn’t a conventional business book; Coll is less interested in the dollars and cents than in the power and influence ExxonMobil wields, from the White House to the Kremlin, from Jakarta to the flyblown African nation of Chad. The result feels like a brawny throwback to those Evil Oil books of the mid-seventies, along the lines of Anthony Sampson’s The Seven Sisters.

So is it any good? Given a writer of Coll’s heft, one expects a glittering banquet of never-before-seen factual entrées and tasty anecdotes, all dripping with a rich sauce of analysis. That’s here, mostly; Coll is about as fine a journalist as we have at this point. But after plowing through nearly seven hundred pages, after rolling around in the miasma of Chad and Equatorial Guinea and Indonesia, you know the taste that’s left in my mouth?

Chicken. It tastes like chicken.

By that I mean, while I learned a lot about ExxonMobil and all sorts of other stuff—I love that “Equato-Guinean” is an actual word, for one thing—not much here shocked me. And that was a little shocking. Jaw-dropping? Come on. ExxonMobil’s people come off as very shrewd, incredibly hardworking, arrogant, more or less honest, and relentlessly focused on profit.

If Coll were a cop leading the company on a perp walk, these would be some of the charges:

1. Playing Twister with tin-pot dictators in places like Equatorial Guinea in return for their oil.

2. Asking the U.S. government to make Indonesian guerrilla fighters quit behaving badly.

3. Asking then–vice president Dick Cheney to open doors for it in Russia and the Persian Gulf. Fibbing about secret meetings with Dick Cheney. Being way too chummy with Dick Cheney. (As we know, this is not a smart thing to do. You could get shot in the face.)

4. Failing to try hard enough to raise Chad out of the Stone Age and caring more about oil than the people of Chad.

5. Being way too skeptical of global warming for way too long. (The company came around, kinda sorta, in 2006.)

I know at least some of this should provoke outrage, but for some reason it just doesn’t. Murder, mercenaries, torture, bribes—these are outrageous things. An oil company downplaying its environmental impacts? Palling around with Dick Cheney? Maybe the sad truth is that, after all we have learned about our major companies in the past thirty years, none of this seems so unusual. ExxonMobil is one of the biggest companies in the world. What do you expect? ExxonUtopia? ExxonGreenpeace? ExxonSesameStreet?

Consider Charge No. 2. Coll gives us two long chapters chronicling the Indonesian guerrilla war and ExxonMobil’s place in it. It’s excellent reporting and kind of interesting, but as best I can tell, the company’s role came down to begging the Bush administration to get the guerrillas to quit attacking its people, which it did. There are suggestions that ExxonMobil looked the other way while Indonesian soldiers committed atrocities, but nothing that qualifies as a smoking gun.

The same goes for the company’s funding of a group called Public Interest Watch, which pestered the Internal Revenue Service to audit the environmental group Greenpeace. A dirty trick, sure, but this is the big leagues. Is it any surprise that one of the biggest corporations in the world plays hardball?

The bottom line is, hardball is something ExxonMobil plays very well. Much of the company’s success, Coll shows, can be attributed to a culture that simply outthinks and outworks the competition. My favorite example is all the new safety regulations that the company became obsessed with after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Every conceivable injury, from bee stings to paper cuts to lawn mower mishaps, suffered on the job or off, had to be reported to management.

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