Subterranean Blues: On ExxonMobil

Subterranean Blues: On ExxonMobil

Moral indignation is no longer enough to combat the power of Big Oil.


For more than a century, ever since Ida Minerva Tarbell published her exposé of the Standard Oil Company in
McClure’s Magazine in 1903, oil has been one of the great subjects for muckraking American journalists. Much as the unconscious is for a Freudian, oil’s dark sludge seems the product of a subterranean world that stands in sharp contrast to the pretensions of the society saturated by it. We never see it, never think about it, have no idea where it comes from or how it comes to be—yet the sludge is ubiquitous, and all we do depends upon its power. We insist that we want independence, to spin energy out of the transparent elements of light and air, and yet it never really goes away. When everything else has been stripped away, it is what remains.

In Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Steve Coll—whose previous works of investigative reporting have covered subjects like American policy in Afghanistan and the history of the bin Laden family—joins the venerable tradition of Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. Here, he documents the political, economic and global power of ExxonMobil, the largest privately owned oil and gas company in the world. Coll frames his story as a narrative of corporate life in the post–cold war era. The choice may feel odd at first: despite the company’s wealth—it has quadrupled its profits in the years since the cold war’s end—oil seems old-fashioned, mired in the physical world. Coll compares it with Walmart and Google, those denizens of the postindustrial economy. In contrast to these, ExxonMobil drills “holes in the ground,” and so its operations are inevitably “linked to the control of physical territory.” In this way, he suggests a different view of the contemporary economy: beneath the glitz and seductions of the service sector runs a river of oil, sluicing through the bright weightlessness of our online dreams.

In Private Empire, Coll writes critically of ExxonMobil but tries to avoid a moralistic tone. Instead, his aim is to describe an energy company in an era of conflict, when it has to deal with the public relations challenges of such things as industrial disasters and political instability. His ExxonMobil is at once a giant and a company beset. Private Empire sprawls over almost 700 pages and makes extended visits to, among other places, Chad, Russia, Iraq and Equatorial Guinea. (Here, too, he’s in good company: Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904, is more than 900 pages.) Private Empire has a cumulative force, for the portrait it provides of Exxon’s internal politics is a study in the culture of denial and the creation of a self-enclosed sphere of power. Yet the problem with Big Oil is no longer simply its monopoly status or its impact on political life. It is impossible these days to write about oil without writing about climate change, and here the model of a muckraking account of corporate power no longer feels sufficient, for the problem is one that cannot be externalized—it implicates us all.

ExxonMobil is descended from the original American oil giant, Standard Oil, which rose to prominence in the industry at the end of the nineteenth century. Its founder was John D. Rockefeller, a famously devout and penurious Baptist, who even as a child was single-mindedly focused on acquisition. Rockefeller built an energy giant through ruthless internal financial discipline and by brutally undercutting his competitors. Like the other robber barons, he had little interest in public opinion. The country’s factories needed his products, so he could afford to ignore the critics. Like social Darwinists then and now, he was confident in the ethics of wealth accumulation: “I believe the power to make money is a gift of God…. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of 
my conscience.”

But the company could not remain oblivious to politics forever; in 1911 the Supreme Court found that Standard Oil had violated antitrust laws and broke it up into thirty-four separate firms. ExxonMobil was created out of a 1999 merger between Exxon and Mobil, two companies that grew out of the 1911 dissolution. The joining of these two companies suggests yet another of the ways in which our modern economy resembles that of the last Gilded Age, as though the old Standard Oil is rising from the dead and reassembling itself piece by piece.

* * *

Should Rockefeller come back from the grave, he would recognize ExxonMobil. Its business is focused, above all, on oil and natural gas. Its culture remains tough, masculine and imbued with Christianity, the mainline variety rather than (as historian Darren Dochuk has shown) the florid fundamentalism that flourished among the rebellious oil wildcatters who hated Standard Oil. One former Exxon manager remembers meetings in the 1970s that always began with a prayer for the future of the company; the inner executive suite at its headquarters in Irving, Texas, is known as the “God Pod.” (The whole complex is dubbed the “Death Star.”) The company recruits heavily from the public universities of the South and Midwest, many of which have petroleum engineering departments. Coll tells the story of one executive who, when he realized that the top five executives (all white men) had fourteen sons and no daughters among them, asked: “What is there in the culture here that promotes people with sons?”

Perhaps the best embodiment of the company is Lee Raymond, its chief executive from 1993 to 2006, who engineered the merger. Born in Watertown, South Dakota, he grew up an evangelical Christian but converted to Catholicism after marrying his wife, a native of Kohler, Wisconsin (a company town that was divided by a lengthy strike in the 1950s). His office nickname was Iron Ass, and he was intolerant of ideas with which he disagreed, interrogating employees with questions like “And what little birdie flew in the window and whispered that dumb-shit idea in your ear?”

A deep believer in “free-market capitalism,” Raymond devoted his life to oil and had few interests or hobbies outside the 
industry to pursue in his many homes around the world. No hedonist, his drink of choice while being flown on one of his private jets is a glass of milk filled with popcorn. He and his wife have separate beds so that Raymond can stay up late to go through documents from work (plus he snores); she sneaks snacks off the planes, complaining about the high price of food in the hotels of Paris and Berlin. Yet when Raymond retired from the company in 2006, he received a package worth $400 million—including an annual “consultancy” payment of $1 million plus coverage of his country club fees. Despite his stated dislike of politics, he counts Dick Cheney—another small-town Midwesterner and oilman—as one of his hunting buddies and remained close to the vice president throughout the Bush years.

But in contrast to the freewheeling machismo of the earlier Standard Oil, today’s ExxonMobil is obsessed with safety. This is, in part, the legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident, which soaked the Prince William Sound in southern Alaska with tons of oil. These days, every meeting begins with a “safety minute,” in which an employee speaks briefly about some danger in the workplace before getting around to whatever actual business there might be. Forgetting to turn off a coffeepot can lead to an official reprimand. File drawers are not to be left open, in case someone bumps into a sharp edge. Employees are asked to back their cars into their parking spaces to minimize the danger of a crash. Raymond even scolded employees who engaged in excessively risky sports in their time outside the office.

All this emphasis on safety seems quixotic—an effort to ward off accidents, but also to suppress the knowledge of the dangers inherent in burning carbon. And here, Raymond’s obsession points the other way: toward campaigns intended to downplay the risk of global warming in the face of all of the scientific evidence to the contrary. The company gives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to legislators (overwhelmingly Republican) who score well on its “key vote” survey, which evaluates a lawmaker’s record on the issues that matter most to the oil and gas industry. The company donates to the major groups advancing arguments that are skeptical of climate change. It assists social scientists who are willing to write supportive articles, and it also funds special retreats for liberal activists so they can mingle with ExxonMobil executives. (In fact, it has even given funding to conferences at the New America Foundation, over which the author himself presides; Coll’s acknowledgments disclose two gifts from ExxonMobil that helped pay for conferences on foreign policy, which is remarkable not because it taints his reporting but because it suggests the company’s reach.)

Confronted with the evidence of global warming, the ExxonMobil strategy has been to insist on the inherent uncertainty of science: we don’t know whether the warming trends of recent years are caused by fossil fuels, but we do know that oil is necessary to make our civilization run. Energy is a progressive marker of the advance of civilization; it is the grease that enables the market to function. Being pro-oil is like being anti-poverty: as Raymond said in a 1997 speech at the Fifteenth World Petroleum Congress in China, the “most pressing environmental problems” of developing countries are related to “poverty, not global climate change,” and addressing those problems requires economic growth—in other words, the higher consumption of fossil fuels.

Near the end of the book, we learn that ExxonMobil is no longer as insistent as it was a few years back about the alleged lack of clear evidence on global warming. Under the leadership of its new chief executive, Rex Tillerson, a former Boy Scout whose favorite book is Atlas Shrugged, the company has gently intimated its support for a carbon tax of some sort—a deviation from its earlier resistance in the Raymond era to any suggestion that global warming is a problem connected to carbon emissions. But the evolution of ExxonMobil’s company line seems primarily a question of its public image rather than evidence of any substantial transformation in its practices.

* * *


Coll’s second big concern in Private Empire is ExxonMobil’s role in international affairs. The company faces constant pressure to expand its access to oil reserves and is always searching for new places to drill. This means working with governments around the world to make deals to extract that oil. Such relationships have never been simple. Early in the twentieth century, American oil production was primarily domestic—hard as it is to believe, the country was a net oil exporter at that time. But even then there were efforts to drill elsewhere, which invariably led to political conflicts. In 1938, for example, the Mexican government expropriated the holdings of foreign oil corporations, including Standard Oil of New Jersey (the largest of the companies formed in the 1911 breakup). Later in the twentieth century, Exxon and the other American oil giants expanded their production around the world—in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere—always relying on the strength of the American government to protect their operations (for example, in the coup against Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran in the early 1950s).

Today, ExxonMobil has established refineries in many countries plagued by poverty and political violence: Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Indonesia. Initially, the company was ambivalent about the US invasion of Iraq (although Coll observes that the tanks and jeeps of the US Army fueled up at depots nicknamed Shell and Exxon in their drive to Baghdad). But now that the region seems marginally more stable, ExxonMobil has been expanding its operations there, agreeing to drill in Kurdistan. Much like its obsession with safety, the company attempts to protect itself from political instability by signing agreements with foreign governments (such as Chad’s) that stipulate the host country will not do anything that “adversely affects [ExxonMobil’s] rights and economic benefits” for the duration of the agreement. Such terms, Coll notes, seem designed to prevent the establishment of a minimum wage or the passage of laws that could make union organizing possible.

Even though, on some level, ExxonMobil still depends on the military and political power of the American government to protect its interests, the company is militant about its own independence. Coll tells one story of the Indian prime minister asking George W. Bush to intervene in a controversy involving ExxonMobil: “Why don’t you just tell them what to do?” Bush’s response: “Nobody tells those guys what to do.” And when the State Department voiced its concern about the company cutting drilling deals with the Kurds that were negotiated independently of Iraq’s national government, Rex Tillerson responded: “I had to do what was best for my shareholders.” Earlier, when Lee Raymond was asked whether ExxonMobil might consider building more refineries in the United States in the interest of national security, he responded: “I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”—putting the lie to the old saying that “what’s good for business is good for America.” No longer does an oil giant need to drape itself in the American flag; today, the rhetoric of the free market is enough.

* * *

Although Private Empire is unique for its focus on a single company, in recent years there has been no shortage of historical and political work on oil. Scholars such as Timothy Mitchell, Hannah Appel and Michael T. Klare have written about the political economy of energy, while an excellent recent issue of The Journal of American History was devoted to the history of oil. Given the plethora of other work available on the subject, it might seem that Coll would want to draw on the tradition of the muckrakers and combine his reportage with moral indignation, telling the story of ExxonMobil as a parable of contemporary greed.

Private Empire never takes this tone. As a work of investigative journalism, it offers a compelling command of detail and rich portraits of ExxonMobil’s internal culture. As a narrative, though, it is much less gripping. Despite the spy-thriller atmospherics, no clear story line runs through the book. Suspense and drama are oddly 
absent: ExxonMobil starts out powerful and gets more powerful; it begins rich and ends richer. The familiar markers of political life—elections, the two major parties, the ideological conflict of left and right—seem marginal to this story. (As Raymond says, “Presidents come and go; Exxon doesn’t come and go.”) The oft-told economic history of the past few years, from the housing bubble and financial crisis to the recession, feels equally irrelevant. The sundry challenges ExxonMobil faces—attempted coups, kidnappings of corporate executives, allegations that it has failed to deal with human rights abuses in the countries with which it partners—never seem to affect what really matters most: its ability to extract millions of barrels of oil from the earth every single day.

Perhaps some combination of the
apparent implacability of the company, its 
entrenchment in our economy and the absence of a clear vision for an alternative—even in the face of the imminent disaster posed by global warming—accounts for Coll’s detachment. When Tarbell wrote her exposé of Standard Oil, she sought to show how the company had used its power to pervert the free market and undermine business ethics. Monopoly was “a leech on our pockets, a barrier to our free efforts,” so she called for breaking up the trusts and reviving the economy of small, independent producers. Today, however, the problem we face is not only the power of ExxonMobil but our collective dependence on sources of energy that are slowly, steadily changing the climate of our planet. ExxonMobil’s political muscle may make it more difficult to develop alternatives, but the genuine source of its power is the oil pumped through its pipelines around the world. Even journalists such as Coll are painfully aware of the extent to which we rely on the power of the very companies they denounce. “American democracy,” Coll writes, “has produced no politics” capable of confronting the power of oil over the past three decades. The problem is not a dearth of information but rather a lack of political imagination. Would-be crusading reporters have it much harder now than they did 100 years ago.

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