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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power [Hardcover]

Steve Coll
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 1 2012

Amazon.ca Editors' Pick: Best Books of 2012

An “extraordinary” and “monumental” exposé of Big Oil from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll (The Washington Post)

In Private Empire Steve Coll investigates the largest and most powerful private corporation in the United States, revealing the true extent of its power. ExxonMobil’s annual revenues are larger than the economic activity in the great majority of countries. In many of the countries where it conducts business, ExxonMobil’s sway over politics and security is greater than that of the United States embassy. In Washington, ExxonMobil spends more money lobbying Congress and the White House than almost any other corporation. Yet despite its outsized influence, it is a black box.

Private Empire pulls back the curtain, tracking the corporation’s recent history and its central role on the world stage, beginning with the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 and leading to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The action spans the globe, moving from Moscow, to impoverished African capitals, Indonesia, and elsewhere in heart-stopping scenes that feature kidnapping cases, civil wars, and high-stakes struggles at the Kremlin. At home, Coll goes inside ExxonMobil’s K Street office and corporation headquarters in Irving, Texas, where top executives in the “God Pod” (as employees call it) oversee an extraordinary corporate culture of discipline and secrecy.

The narrative is driven by larger than life characters, including corporate legend Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, ExxonMobil’s chief executive until 2005. A close friend of Dick Cheney’s, Raymond was both the most successful and effective oil executive of his era and an unabashed skeptic about climate change and government regulation.. This position proved difficult to maintain in the face of new science and political change and Raymond’s successor, current ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, broke with Raymond’s programs in an effort to reset ExxonMobil’s public image. The larger cast includes countless world leaders, plutocrats, dictators, guerrillas, and corporate scientists who are part of ExxonMobil’s colossal story.

The first hard-hitting examination of ExxonMobil, Private Empire is the masterful result of Coll’s indefatigable reporting. He draws here on more than four hundred interviews; field reporting from the halls of Congress to the oil-laden swamps of the Niger Delta; more than one thousand pages of previously classified U.S. documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act; heretofore unexamined court records; and many other sources. A penetrating, newsbreaking study, Private Empire is a defining portrait of ExxonMobil and the place of Big Oil in American politics and foreign policy.


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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power + Sun Rise: Suncor, The Oil Sands And The Future Of Energy
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Review

Winner of The Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award

A 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

One of Financial Times' Best Books of 2012

 
“ExxonMobil has met its match in Coll, an elegant writer and dogged reporter… extraordinary… monumental.
--The Washington Post

Fascinating… Private Empire is a book meticulously prepared as if for trial, a lawyerly accumulation of information that lets the facts speak for themselves… a compelling and elucidatory work.”
--Bloomberg

Private Empire is meticulous, multi-angled and valuable… Mr. Coll’s prose sweeps the earth like an Imax camera.”
--Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"ExxonMobil has cut a ruthless path through the Age of Oil. Yet intense secrecy has kept one of the world's largest companies a mystery, until now. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power is a masterful study of Big Oil's biggest player… Coll's in-depth reporting, buttressed by his anecdotal prose, make Private Empire a must-read. Consider Private Empire a sequel of sorts to The Prize, Daniel Yergin's Pulitzer-winning history of the oil industry… Coll's portrait of ExxonMobil is both riveting and appalling… Yet Private Empire is not so much an indictment as a fascinating look into American business and politics. With each chapter as forceful as a New Yorker article, the book abounds in Dickensian characters.”
--San Francisco Chronicle

"Coll makes clear in his magisterial account that Exxon is mighty almost beyond imagining, producing more profit than any American company in the history of profit, the ultimate corporation in 'an era of corporate ascendancy.' This history of its last two decades is therefore a revealing history of our time, a chronicle of the intersection between energy and politics."
--Bill McKibben, New York Review of Books

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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Customer Reviews

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4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good business book Jan. 13 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
Good read. All the details in this book are researched and very well documented, the book gives a great overall image of the most successful oil company of our time.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A good book about a great company. July 31 2014
By Brian
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Avery interesting piece about one of the most successful companies ever.The negative innuendos about Exxon's environmental and safety management process are shallow. Because of that process, Exxon has had the best safety and environmental performance in it's industry over the last 25 years. No other company comes close!! Too bad the writer neither recognized this nor mentioned it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars July 14 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent insight!!!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  133 reviews
205 of 217 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You can't put this book down - It just grabs YOU - 5 STARS !!!!! May 1 2012
By Richad of Connecticut - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a reader you can never really explain it, but a truly great author can make anything come alive while others will put you to sleep. Steve Coll is a Pulitzer Prize winner author of Ghost Wars - the Secret History of the CIA, which is another book you just can't put down. Private Empire is special, and the title is so appropriate, a company that has been in business for over a 100 years. It has seen 19 American Presidents come and go, and yet it remains the dominant energy company in the world, and this book covers the whole story.

There is very little devoted to the early history of the company. As we all probably know John D. Rockefeller created the Standard Oil Trust and when it was broken up by the Trust Busters in the early 20th century, one of the spin-offs was the early ancestor to what is now Exxon which eventually combined with Mobil Oil to form ExxonMobil. Rockefeller controlled 14% of the American economy at one point, and oil has remained our dominant energy source ever since.

What a book, what a story for Exxon is the tale of 20th century America and our country's rise to both prominence and dominance in the world both politically and economically. A company so powerful that it considers itself in many ways a state within a state with an internal security force the equivalent of the Secret Service that guards our President. And why not, Exxon has recruited the best of the retired Secret Service agents to develop, install, and maintain a security shield around this company's behavior and its employees.

The book devotes a chapter to the kidnapping and death of Exxon executive Sidney Reso and how CEO Lee Raymond completely revamped the entire company to ensure that it would not happen again. You will learn about the finest private corporate jet fleet in America, and how the Board of Directors mandated that the CEO would never fly a commercial flight again.

It's absolutely absorbing to study in detail how the company after decades in New York moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas Texas and how the building was designed for secrecy with an inner sanctum within an inner sanctum. It was called the God Pod, and the building was called the Death Star after the Star Wars movies.

Lee Raymond proudly proclaims about his competitors, we are Oil - the rest of you are kids. Nothing is left to chance for the dominant oil company in the world. They don't run the company on emotions, they run it on science and principles as the book points out. It is the relentless pursuit of efficiency, another catchphrase employed by the author.

COMPOSITION of the Book

This tome is over 700 pages spread over 28 chapters with extensive use of footnotes. It is separated into two parts, the first 14 chapters or part I is The End of Easy Oil, while Part II is The Risk Cycle which covers 14 additional chapters.

To truly cover the history of Exxon from the beginning, you would need 1500 to 2000 pages, so the author decided to begin with the Exxon Valdez tragedy. In March of 1989, an Exxon oil tanker traveling through Prince Edward Sound went aground and created an environmental and public relations nightmare for Exxon. The story is covered in detail and the book clearly demonstrates how Lee Raymond who would become CEO in the future used the tragedy to essentially completely revamp Exxon's corporate structure and behavior.

The author also wisely decided to use Lee Raymond as the point man or cornerstone of this book. We see Exxon through Raymond's eyes, and as Raymond says in the book, we see governments come and go. This is an acknowledgment that Exxon thinks and plans for decades at a time, not years.

CONCLUSION

Yes, it is all here. If you are into business biographies, this one is tops. If you are into geopolitical power and how corporations interact with governments including their own government this book is an eye-opener. If you want to get a real feel for what it's like for tens of thousands of people to dedicate themselves to the optimal running of a corporation and very little else, this book may turn you on or turn you off.

Exxon is a demanding master for those who serve, and for those who serve willingly, it makes them rich, and materially they want for nothing. Yes the corporation will absorb your soul and ask everything of you. This is all the more interesting when you consider that all the top people in this company seem to be cut from the same cloth meaning the same religious belief systems, basically Southern colleges, and political beliefs - no left wing partisans need to submit a resume. You simply would not pass the background check.

This reader thought the two chapter headings that best describe the Exxon culture were Chapter 4 - Do you really want us as an enemy, and Chapter 17 I pray for Exxon. The best line in the book was a sentence where Exxon's attitude is described as F_ _ _ you - no apologies, oil is here to stay. This is truly a great read. You don't want to miss it, and you will understand much more about oil, lobbyists, how our government works, and energy that you could have ever possibly wanted to know. Get it today.

Richard Stoyeck
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Nuanced Look at ExxonMobil May 12 2012
By las cosas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A Pulitzer Prize winning New Yorker author writes a vast book about the largest corporation in the United States. You can picture the book, you say. Long on research, including large numbers of interviews with people who refuse to be quoted by name? Yes. Engaging distillation of technical information into a readily understood summary? Yes. Characters and scenes drawn with a cinematic vividness? Yes. Revelations that require the reader to rethink his or her basic understanding of the book's subject? Well no.

I spent most of the book's 700 pages waiting for The Revelation. The Secret. The...well, anything. This is certainly more the fault of my expectations than any deficiency in the book. But it is odd that the author would have spent such a huge amount of time and energy writing such a detailed book about two decades of ExxonMobil corporate history without a central theme. Maybe I have simply read too many books about the oil industry and spend too much of life reading business newspapers and magazines, but the general tale told in this book is very well known. What is less well known is the details of the various strands of the story, and those strands are told with exquisite detail, well supported by copious footnotes, even though many (most?) of the cited interviews fail to name the individuals cited.

The book starts crisply with a factual description of the hours leading to the Exxon Valdez disaster and ends two decades later with BP's Deepwater Horizon fiasco. In between we are given an inside look at the corporate culture and operating environment of ExxonMobil. The book consists almost entirely of dozens of intimate scenes. Retreats where Exxon executives uneasily spend days with environmentalists, descriptions of the compounds in Chad where ExxonMobil contractors and employees are barricaded behind thick walls as government security forces ward off locals wanting everything from jobs to equipment to kidnapping.

The author accomplishes several feats in this book, among those are his ability to stitch together disparate scenes to create a three-dimensional view of the world in which Exxon operates, and to coherently present the issues and personalities in all of their complexities.

While Exxon has three divisions: chemicals, upstream (oil and gas exploration and production) and downstream (refining and the gasoline station companies), the real money, the high returns are in the upstream division. Increasingly, new oil and gas reserves available for "ownership" by private companies like ExxonMobil, are in difficult places. Geologically difficult in places such as the Arctic and politically difficult in places such as Chad and Nigeria. Each of these difficulties is explained by giving us a detailed picture of the people, issues and places in which Exxon has been maneuvering over the last 20 years.

But the real triumph of this book is in the endless subtlety of the issues and people presented. Take Chad for example. Human rights and development advocates have argued for some time that it is inappropriate for a company to simply negotiate for the ownership of a country's natural resources with the ruler of that country. The result is often a country that decades later is in worse shape economically than before the contract was signed. A few individuals surrounding the ruler become obscenely wealthy, but that wealth does nothing for the country as a while. ExxonMobil was old school in this and many other matters. Executives were certain that by universally applying a rigorously developed set of rules set down in binders developed over years in the company's Texas headquarters that problems could be reduced to a minimum. It complied with applicable US and foreign laws, but refused to involve itself in the countries or communities where it did business. It paid government agencies to provide security for its facilities and personnel, but was not particularly concerned about how these forces protected these assets. This rigidity did not necessarily serve the company well, and when it negotiated a large contract with Chad it took a completely new route and required that all revenues be under the control of the World Bank, supposedly assuring that the funds would aid the country as a while, not just the ruling elite. This was not easy to negotiate for ExxonMobil, and the author gives us enough detail to see the interests of the various parties, and the effort required by ExxonMobil to accomplish this more "enlightened" approach to resource contracts. But this experiment failed, failed rather miserably, and you get a sense of why ExxonMobil preferred to keep things simple. Use a single model and keep to it.

The nuances of the book are most clearly at play when the author describes Lee Raymond, the Chairman during most of the time covered by the book. Conservative, short-tempered and unable to suffer fools without disdain, he was notoriously opposed to the very idea that climate change existed, let alone that it was a problem. But the author clearly respects the attention to detail and integrity of Mr. Raymond, and his nuanced and detailed portrayal of him echoes his portrayal of the company. If you are interested in an inside look at the world in which ExxonMobil has operated since the Valdez disaster, this is the book. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an expose, a smoking gun, you will need to keep looking.
62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well Written, Very Interesting May 3 2012
By P. Woodland - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This was a door stopper of a book. I haven't had a real hefty book for a bit and it was a real delight to sit and hold a real solid book again. And what a book it was. Starting with the the Exxon Valdez spill and book-ending with the Deepwater Horizon disaster Private Empire details the arrogance that is ExxonMobil.

Mr. Coll's writing style is easy even when explaining oil extraction methods or the geopolitics of oil and natural gas rights. It reads almost like a suspense novel except that it's all true. And that is what makes it so scary. I found myself turning page after page reeling at my naivete. I think I want to go back to being uninformed. It's a happier state of mind.

Mr. Coll's research for the book was quite extensive and the book is heavily footnoted. He conducted over 400 interviews with people great and small and he weaves what they shared together with facts gathered from all over the world to take the reader on a ride from oil fields to the offices of political power in this country and beyond. It was utterly fascinating to get a peak inside the Borg like culture of Exxon. Tow the company line or find another job.

I have not enjoyed a non fiction book this much in a long, long time. I just wish I wasn't so surprised at what I learned.
74 of 92 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Gossip rather than facts June 2 2012
By R.T.H.J. Hospers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As described by more positive reviews, this book offers an entertaining read of different recent historical aspects of XOM. Those readers however who, like myself, are familiar with the oil industry, may be annoyed with the quite anecdotal nature of the whole book and it's lack of real substance. The author is clearly not an industry expert, rather more like a 'celebrity news' reporter.

To me the book lacks a central thesis that is founded on a structered story line. Instead interesting anecdotes are described and not always as complete as I would have liked to see them. The different aspects are in themselves entertaining to read, e.g. Exxon Valdez, kidnappings etc., but don't really tell you anything about XOM's inner workings, other than that it is a large company in an interesting industry working in interesting geographical locations; something everybody probably already understands. To me it was as if the author had uncovered a Wikileaks file on XOM and compounded some stories 'uncovering' XOM's seemingly dark motives.
Similar to Wikileaks though you may conclude that XOM is run with intelligence and common sense and yes, due to the nature of it's business, is sometimes confronted with interesting and challenging situations.

I would compare reading this book to reading celebrity gossip. If you're more interested in a factually astute book I would recommend The Prize by Daniel Yergin on the history of the oil industry in general and it's significant impact on politics and history - also very entertaining to read by the way. Or if you would prefer another, but better hero-cult book, read Paul Hendrix's biography on Henri Deterding, Royal Dutch Shell's founding father and a more entertaining read even than this book that will truly show some of the interconnections between Big Oil and politics.

This also brings me to my final point of criticism, XOM is regularly compared to some of it's competitors to make it look omnipotent also from a historical perspective. Often however Royal Dutch Shell, XOM's lifetime global rival, is omitted. This makes for an incomplete and misleading picture, as up to Exxon's takeover of Mobil in 1999, Shell has generally been the world's leading oil company. This again says something about how accurate and balanced this book is. In fairness though I would like to add that the author does state on more than one occasion that XOM's Ceo Raymond admired/respected Shell the most bar his own company.

Also a number of the 'figures & facts' are flawed up to the point that even a layman could and certainly the author should have detected their inacurracy. To the layman these inaccuracies will probably not be off-putting, but to me it reflects on the factual quality of the book.

I did enjoy reading the book, but since I was ultimately more interested in facts than anecdotal gossip: 2 stars.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Disppointing to those with preconviewed ideas? Aug. 17 2012
By Phillip Hawley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a consultant to many world-wide governments (excluding Venezuela) negotiating oil exploration agreements with international oil companies, I formed the firm opinion that ExxonMobil's representatives were always the smartest and best prepared of the many industry officials I met across the table. And they maintained very consistent and clear positions on key issues.

Steven Coll's broad description of ExxonMobil is entirely consistent with my own experience, and also accurate in those situations where I had personal knowledge of the events he describes.

So: "Smart, Tough, Powerful but Ethical" may be the reality but this must come as a disappointment to those readers who expected and hoped that Coll would expose unsavory deals, corruption or other evils. Even in his "Cash Waterfall" chapter (and the correct term is "cash flow" before distortion through translation from English to Spanish and back to English), he accurately describes a tricky but totally warranted maneuver with Hugo Chavez's government.

What is best in this book, however, is the neutral posture Coll adopts throughout; only the facts and opinions expressed by the author's sources but not judgmental on his part.

My reluctance to give 5 Stars is simply that the author missed describing some events I think are very interesting.
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