22 July 2012, Sweetcrude, London – In 1904, Ida Tarbell, an American journalist, took on a corporate behemoth with her publication of The History of the Standard Oil Company. Seen today as a seminal piece of investigative journalism, the book documented the ruthless tactics the oil giant employed to subdue its rivals and silence critics. Written in the trust busting environment of the early 20th century, it is held partly responsible for the breakup of Standard Oil, as mandated by lawmakers in 1911.
Despite those efforts, the companies carved out of Standard Oil have grown into some of the most powerful organisations on the planet, able to shape legislation, influence America’s foreign policy and determine the fortunes of entire countries.
Pulitzer prize-winning writer Steve Coll subjects ExxonMobil (America’s biggest oil and gas producer) to the Tarbell treatment, in his account of the company from the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster of 1989 up until BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling accident two years ago. Coll starts with the low point of Exxon Valdez partly because Exxon had to reinvent itself following the spillage off Alaska’s coast, becoming one of the world’s most rigorously managed and profitable companies. The time frame also enables Coll to explore fully how this more disciplined company has tackled the challenges facing a modern oil corporation – such as the difficulty of replenishing reserves in a climate of “resource nationalism”; the ethical dilemma of collaborating with authoritarian regimes; growing public scrutiny of corporate wrongdoing; and above all, concern about the environmental damage caused by the use of fossil fuels.
Self-serving conduct is hardly unorthodox within a big business, but ExxonMobil comes across as particularly cynical here, especially in its relationship with the American government – either manipulating or ignoring politicians depending on its needs. The Global Climate Coalition it joined was described by a Greenpeace director as “the most effective industry association I’ve ever seen at working to block progress on climate change”. Warned by the Obama administration that striking independent oil deals with the Kurds would exacerbate ethnic tension in Iraq, ExxonMobil went ahead anyway. “I had to do what was best for my shareholders,” explained Rex Tillerson, the chief executive.
Coll carried out more than 450 interviews in the course of writing Private Empire, but he notes that ExxonMobil refused several approaches, including requests for a meeting with Tillerson, and declined to answer any fact-checking questions. Even so, and despite the prevailing tone, he writes without an obvious agenda, supplying details and balanced analysis but letting readers form their own judgments about ExxonMobil. Indeed, it is possible to read this book and be impressed by the company’s adroit management and financial successes.
Whatever one’s perspective, Coll’s work is a thoroughly researched and finely written portrayal of a business whose activities have profound implications for us all.
This article was written by Iain Morris and first published in TheObserver.