Friday, July 6

Book Review: Private Empire – ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll

If you were expecting Private Empire, the latest book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author Steve Coll, to serve as a hit piece on ExxonMobil (and 'Big Oil' in general) you’ll be somewhat disappointed.

For anyone unfamiliar with his previous work, Steve Coll’s earlier books include the highly recommended Ghost Wars, arguably the definitive geopolitical account of the activities of the CIA and other national intelligence agencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan from the time of the Soviet invasion up to the eve of the 9-11. Ghost Wars won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for general non-fiction and was one of the books a newly elected President Barrack Obama was reported to be reading upon entering office.

Steve Coll describes in an interview with Charlie Rose what lead him to want to write Private Empire and how his original idea for the book was to tell a broader story about the oil industry in the style of Daniel Yergin’s The Prize. He soon realized, however, that he needed a central character and Exxon was for him the only logical choice.

Coll’s portrait of Exxon begins in March 1989 with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, an event which made the company the most reviled in the United Sates. The book’s timeline spans the subsequent transformation of the company, which was led by CEO Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, up through its present day stewardship by current CEO Rex Tillerson. Along the way we learn a great deal about Exxon, including its somewhat peculiar cult-like corporate culture, its blockbuster merger with Mobil, its controversial stance and efforts on global warning, the access it enjoyed to political leaders such as Vice President Dick Cheney, its somewhat misleading approach to reporting oil reserves, and the company’s record setting financial success. The book in fact makes for a compelling business case study and students of business history, strategy and management will find much of interest.

The most interesting sections of the book are the ones detailing ExxonMobil’s operations in some of the world’s most politically unstable regions. ExxonMobil’s bread and butter business is to invest billions of dollars drilling holes in the ground in countries like Equatorial Guinea and Chad and then spend the next 30-40 years working to make sure that nothing interrupts the company's return on investment. Coll’s account of the 2004 attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea by a group of British and South African mercenaries, who were supported from some elements within the Spanish government, is one of the most fascinating stories in the book.

Continue reading the full review here.