Review: Private Empire

Private Empire is a well-reported history of ExxonMobil’s history between the Exxon Valdez disaster and the first term of the Obama administration. Steve Coll does a fairly even-handed job of both documenting the corporate actions and animating them with the personalities who drive them.

One cannot approach the history of a corporation that acts on the scale of a nation in without some bias, but Coll is even handed enough that I believe that I got a clearer sense of the motivations of the players in the corporation. I came away with two insights: ExxonMobil policy is driven as much by the personalities of the executives who steer it as by the structure of the industry and market it exists in.

The corporation projects the economic mass of a nation channeled by a single industry and market. The industry leads the corporation to search into places with oil that one can get at. Getting at oil includes at least geology, changing technology, the government (or other organization) that controls the legal claims to that geology, and the public relations of getting access to it and selling it. As complex as the problem is, that is much more constrained than what drives nations. Under those constraints oil companies act in a pretty broad range of ways.

Coll argues that the personalites of the executives steer those actions. Over this period ExxonMobil was headed by basically two people: Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson. Their mix of aggressive drive and Boy Scout upbringing led to more nuanced responses to their problems. The company’s expansion (including merging with Mobil) and geopolitical adventures (including responding to kidnappings and pulling a legal heist on the nation of Venezuela) are surprising in ways I approve and disapprove of. I understand them better having read this.

Seeing Tillerson as a cross between Boy Scout and Robber Baron makes his tenure as Secretary of State pretty surreal.


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