Holiday Read: Private Empire, Steve Coll investigates ExxonMobil

This holiday season, if you are looking for a fascinating book on the global dominance of oil (because, aren’t we all), do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. This book investigates the most powerful American corporation and reveals its global influence.

Private Empire opens with the nightmare of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. That catastrophic event caused Exxon to be the most vilified corporation in the United States and ushered in a new management philosophy for the firm. The running theme of the book – the constant pursuit of oil reserves – has Coll telling us stories of war, murder, coddling of dictators, environmental degradation and cronyism; all the while ExxonMobil assures us that they are:

…committed to being a good corporate citizen wherever we operate worldwide. We maintain the highest ethical standards, comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and respect local and national cultures.

A testament to his reporting prowess, Coll’s book recently won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. Private Empire was up against stiff competition which included the celebrated biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Coll’s synthesis draws on more than four hundred interviews, field reporting from across the globe, court cases and previously classified documents.

Coll closes the book with BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Reaction to that spill continues even today as the United States Environmental Protection Agency has suspended any new federal contracts with BP, citing the incident. During the 2010 spill, ExxonMobil distanced themselves from the event indicating that BP “suffered from a ‘culture’ of looseness and rule bending.” Yet, Coll notes, ten days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline dumped about a million gallons of oil along the eastern coast of Nigeria. The remoteness of that location, coupled with risky travel due to kidnapping gangs, ensured that event would barely register.

Private Empire is a sobering read as we learn about the full scope of ExxonMobil’s power, but I found the book both thrilling and informative as Coll rolls out the story of oil in a globalized world. 

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