Private Empire (review)

Private Empire
Long-time readers will recall that I loved The Bin Ladens, a previous book by Steve Coll. So, I was really glad to get a copy of Private Empire in the mail a few weeks ago1.

This one doesn’t have the same narrative drive as The Bin Ladens (it’s not as biography-based, for one), but it’s dang good. It covers the modern history of ExxonMobil from the 1970s, 80s, and beyond, just touching on the old Standard Oil days briefly here and there. The bookends are disasters: Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon. It’s an ominous way to open and close the book, but those parts—like the middle sections on ExxonMobil’s involvement in Indonesia, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia and elsewhere—are really fair and thoughtful. I’d wager that public opinion weighs pretty heavily against ExxonMobil, so a lot of this is good corrective or at least perspective. Think of it as a healthy re-complication of the simpler stories you might hear or assume, whatever your stance.

My favorite parts of this book weren’t the environmental concerns or the human rights horrors or the tangled geopolitical wrangling so well documented here, but the perspective on the business side. It woke me up to the sheer nerve (impudence?), courage (recklessness?), and (evil?) genius it takes to run a business like this. It’s incredible. Things I hadn’t thought much about before:

  • The planning has to take into account huge time scales. If you’re building new wells, new pipelines, new plants, and new shipping routes… for billions of gallons of reserves… in a war-torn country… you’ve got your hands full. And on top of that, assessing environmental risk, political stability, and managing investments over 30, 40, 50 years and behond in those environments, and managing to turn a profit? I can’t help but admire it.
  • ExxonMobil much prefers to own the whole process, upstream to downstream, from ground to well to refinery to processing to gas stations and other end products. Reminds me of Apple. Owning the whole value chain makes it easier call your own shots.
  • ExxonMobil isn’t a place for cowboys. Of all the big players in the industry, it has the reputation for being the most anal, rigid, calculating, precise, conservative, family-oriented, engineering-minded culture. And the most cocky. But it’s earned.
  • I kind of cynically assume a little bit of chicanery for any really big company, but I was surprised by how much ExxonMobil seemed to prefer to stay away from the government. A request here and there, but the firm seemed staunch in its stance: it’s not the Red Cross, and it operates worldwide. Global responsibility to employees and shareholders means that ExxonMobil’s interests may or may not always align those of the U.S. government. Best to keep your distance and keep the favors to a minimum.
  • With these volumes of money that ExxonMobil makes, tax becomes a huge concern in negotiations and business operations worldwide (not just the IRS). Even small variations can swing earnings.
  • There’s a great section on the we-started-the-Iraq-War-for-oil fallacy and our dysfunctional understanding of “energy security” in general, a corrective I wish we’d heard more 10 years ago. But, alas, it’s so hard to keep a holistic perspective in stressful times.

If anything, Coll errs on the side of detail. There were times I wondered why I was reading about so-and-so’s time in college or career trajectory, when I knew I wasn’t going to remember it and they wouldn’t be mentioned after the next 7 pages. But it’s that careful, steady, inclusive approach, carried out over hundreds of pages, that makes it easier to trust Coll’s sense for the nuances in really sensitive topics. Think “oil industry” or “global corporation” and try not to have a strong gut reaction. I’d thank this book for tempering my knee-jerk response on a lot of topics. Life is messy. I’m really glad I read this one.

1. Disclosure: I got it for free on the condition that I write about it. I would have gotten it for free from the library anyway because I like Coll’s writing. But just so you know.

One thought on “Private Empire (review)

  1. That intense attention to details you mention definitely adds to my confidence level regarding Coll’s fact-checking. Sounds like a fascinating (albeit lengthy) read!Thanks for being on the tour.

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