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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power Hardcover – May 1, 2012
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Coll employs language that’s plain, clear, and free of accusation. Though some of the details recounted across the sprawling narrative of Private Empire are outrageous, the reporting is deep and fair. — Coral Davenport
About the Author
Steve Coll is most recently the author of the New York Times bestseller The Bin Ladens. He is the president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute headquartered in Washington, D.C., and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Previously heworked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. He is the author of six other books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Ghost Wars.
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The book takes you on a geographical journey to lands where Exxon finds oil - Aceh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Russia and more. There are some lighter moments, for example when Equatorial Guinea wants to open a US bank account. There are also deadly serious decisions in Iraq.
Thorough research makes the book most informative and enjoyable. For climate change activists, skeptics and scientists, the book is peppered with insights into Exxon's strategies and research. You may not agree with the author's comments on Peak Oil, but his arguments are generally well thought out.
This is a terrific read and provides insights into the oil industry. With current low oil prices, the book needs another edition!
The story starts with the Exxon Valdez grounding in Alaska in March 1989 and ends with the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Starting with the Exxon Valdez is the author's way of introducing employee Lee Raymond. At that time, as President of Exxon (before the merger with Mobil in 1999), Mr Raymond was the lead for addressing the Exxon Valdez problem.
The book ends by discussing the Deepwater Horizon accident because the book has to end and that's a dramatic event, even though EM was no part of the accident.
The book is relentless in reporting how this international company works anywhere it can reasonably make a profit. Another bold point is how EM avoids engagement with the US government whenever it can avoid it, but also courts US diplomatic intervention when EM needs a way smoothed with a foreign power.
Along the way, we are taught that, to be a viable business, to keep the stock value up, an oil/gas company has to constantly look for new places to get oil/gas. This can be done by exploration and drilling, and it can be done by buying a company. We learn to sympathize with the company's quest for oil/gas because there are thousands of employees and retirees who count on EM's success.
This is a good read, a view into the highest level of what a very large company does to survive and flourish.
My take-away thought: Perhaps the most famous quote in the book is from Dr. Raymond: “I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S." I have always thought of EM as an American company, but Dr. Raymond set me straight. Now I wonder how "American" our other largest companies are (examples: Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson).
What I especially appreciated about this title was Coll's ability to provide both sides of the story, so that it is not just another attack on "Big Oil", but also gives credit to ExxonMobil in the areas where it surpasses its competitors in the quality of its operations (especially with regards to worker safety), and the reasoning behind some of their faults (such as Lee Raymond's refusal to acknowledge climate change arguments).
The book is in no way a puff piece for ExxonMobil, and actually concludes with a rather dire outlook on the future of its operations; but it is a fair and balanced history of one of the most successful--and reviled--companies in the world. Overall a great and informative read.