What’s Good for Exxon is Not So Good for America


Charles Wilson, the General Motors chief executive whom Dwight Eisenhower picked to be secretary of defense, was asked at his confirmation hearing whether he could ever make a decision as secretary that would hurt the company at which he had spent his career. His actual reply—not the shorter misquote that entered political lore—was, “I cannot conceive of one, because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” In the 1950s, that was a credible reply from the head of what was then the largest corporation in the United States. Subsequent globalization and the development of multinational corporations have made such a statement no longer credible. When Lee Raymond, CEO of Texas-based ExxonMobil from 1993 to 2005, was asked if his company might build more refineries in the United States to help protect the country against possible shortages of gasoline, he replied, “I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”

ExxonMobil, the subject of Steve Coll’s Private Empire, provides the premiere case study of the interaction of corporate and governmental power. Sheer size is one reason. As of the most recent fiscal year ExxonMobil is the largest corporation in the world as measured by either revenue ($486 billion) or profit ($41 billion). The nature of the oil and gas business is another reason. ExxonMobil and its competitors must constantly seek new “bookable reserves” to replace the hydrocarbons they are extracting, lest they face a future as ever-shrinking companies. The reserves they seek are a nonrenewable and already heavily depleted resource—the remaining non-coal portion of what alternative energy guru Amory Lovins has described as “four cubic miles of the rotted remains of primeval swamp goo.” The quest takes the companies to places that are highly problematic both physically and politically.

The clout, reach, and mission of ExxonMobil mean that it runs what amounts to its own foreign policy, raising the question of how that policy relates to the foreign policy of the United States. In important respects the two foreign policies are congruent. Both the company and the country have a strong interest in a global free market in oil. Both tend to be hurt by any mercantilist tendencies that link consumption of this resource on the downstream end with possession of it on the upstream end.

Some deals ExxonMobil has struck with foreign governments also have complemented and advanced U.S. objectives in specific countries. In an agreement signed this April at Vladimir Putin’s residence, ExxonMobil will collaborate with the Russian oil company Rosneft to exploit offshore oil and gas fields in the Russian Arctic. The deal, reached only after an earlier uneven history of negotiations that Coll describes, is consistent with Washington’s policy of “resetting” relations with Russia. But ExxonMobil was acting only out of its interest in booking more reserves and selling more oil for profit. Putin found it hard to understand that, unlike in Russia, a U.S. company did not bend to the will of the U.S. government.

In other places ExxonMobil’s interests have not complemented U.S. interests and instead have been a complication. Last year it became the first major international oil company to sign an agreement with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq—against the urging of the Obama administration, which accurately foresaw that the deal would exacerbate Kurdish-Arab tensions amid continuing disagreement over the handling of oil revenues. Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson, told senior State Department officials, “I had to do what was best for my shareholders.”

Elsewhere the complications have involved ExxonMobil’s dealings with regimes that have odious human rights records or for some other reason have been in bad odor in Washington. Some such dealings have been sufficiently under the public radar that Washington has mostly just looked the other way. In other places the agreements have been too conspicuous to do that. In Venezuela ExxonMobil not only struck a deal with Hugo Chavez in 2004 but also agreed to the strongman’s demand for a televised signing ceremony shortly before a referendum on whether Chavez should continue in office. This implied endorsement of Chavez was against the wishes of the Bush administration, which was instead trying to isolate and undermine him.

ExxonMobil has not sought conspicuous U.S. government backing of its activities overseas, even where the interests of company and country seem to converge. The company’s executives have realized that close association with U.S. policy is in many parts of the world more of a drawback than an asset. So the company often goes it alone, even in providing security for its operations. In insecure places such as Chad and the Nigerian delta, it has relied on a combination of its own resources and its own direct dealings with—and often material support for—host country security forces.

Out of public view, however, the company has not hesitated to enlist U.S. government assistance, especially in closing deals with foreign governments. This was especially the case during the Bush administration, not just because of congruence of interests but also because of longstanding ties forged within the oil industry. The conclusion of an agreement with the United Arab Emirates (where ExxonMobil was competing with Shell) came after the company’s frustrations with what it considered to be insufficient backing by the State Department. A phone call from Raymond to Vice President (and former Halliburton chief) Dick Cheney, who in turn called contacts in the U.A.E. government, evidently was instrumental in ExxonMobil getting the contract.

The disjunction between ExxonMobil’s interests and U.S. national interests goes well beyond incongruent foreign policies in countries such as Iraq or Venezuela; it extends to the fundamental objectives of each in extracting and refining oil. The company and its shareholders are interested in maximizing profits. The interest of the American public is in having steady and secure supplies of a commodity that has come to be regarded as a necessity in a modern economy. Decisions based on the profit motive, especially about investment in production capacity, often will be different from what the public interest would dictate.

Coll makes an interesting comparison between the oil business and another energy industry: the sale of electric power, which state utility commissions regulate with the express mission of protecting the public interest. “It was in some respects,” Coll observes, “an accident of American political history—as well as an expression of the enduring power of the largest oil corporations—that electric energy was treated as a public entitlement subject to close regulatory scrutiny, while gasoline was not.” One of the resulting chronic problems of the unregulated oil industry has been “underinvestment by the big companies in oil exploration and production, which contributed to tighter supply and more volatile prices that occasionally socked American consumer budgets unexpectedly.”

Environmental issues present even more direct contrasts between corporate and public interests. These include accidents, to which Coll devotes much attention, including an entire chapter about an underground leak of gasoline in 2006 at an Exxon station in Maryland. The book begins with the biggest image-staining incident in the company’s modern history: the wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. Part of the corporate response to that incident was an admirable company-wide emphasis on safety. But as Coll notes, the oil companies’ need to go to colder, deeper, more remote, and less stable places in a never-ending effort to acquire more reserves gives them a different outlook on risk from one formulated from the standpoint of the broader public interest. An ExxonMobil can survive even an incident like the Exxon Valdez, but it ultimately could not survive a failure to get more oil. The company’s executives have considered, probably with good reason, their safety record to be better than that of their competitor BP, which experienced the Macondo well blowout in 2010. But the government-required Oil Spill Response Plan that ExxonMobil had filed came from the same regulatory consulting firm that BP and other companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico used. That meant it was the same 500 pages of boilerplate, which included such irrelevancies as the protection of walruses.

A more fundamental environmental issue for the oil companies is the effect that combustion of their products has on the atmosphere and thus on the global climate—fundamental because of how public policies on this issue may move economies away from consumption of their products. The biggest nightmare for ExxonMobil and other oil companies would be a major government-promoted shift to alternative sources of energy based on a strongly and widely held conclusion that burning hydrocarbons unacceptably harms the health of the planet. Probably the least commendable aspect of Lee Raymond’s long and successful tenure at the top of ExxonMobil was his denial of human-induced climate change. Raymond—a Ph.D. In chemical engineering who should have known, and probably did know, better—unapologetically funded advocacy groups that questioned mainstream climate science. He portrayed such funding as an example of his corporation having the courage of its convictions. “We think we have a responsibility,” said Raymond. “If we think people are about to make some bad policy decisions that are going to have a big impact for a long period of time, somebody’s got to say something.”

Tillerson later bowed to reason and science by moving the company away from Raymond’s strategy of denial. Tillerson came to support a carbon tax, deeming it preferable to a cap-and-trade system. But damage had already been done to public discourse on the subject. The prospect of higher taxes on carbon-based fuels was set back by the sort of resistance that ExxonMobil—one of the top three corporate spenders on direct lobbying in Washington—had spearheaded. “With its ideological allies,” writes Coll, “ExxonMobil funded the promotion of public confusion about climate science by means that future employees and executives of the corporation are likely to look back on with regret.”

Private Empire relates in mostly narrative form the highlights and lowlights of roughly the past twenty-five years of Exxon (as it was still called before merging with Mobil in 1999). The book reflects the exhaustive research that characterized Coll’s earlier Pulitzer Prize-winning work. It is a rich and well-grounded portrait of the corporation. The author’s familiarity with a wide range of issues related to security and foreign policy (Coll recently reviewed a book of mine that addresses intelligence, terrorism, and the Iraq War) enables him to place the ExxonMobil story deftly into the larger context of the “American power” to which the subtitle refers. The book is filled with digressions, many of which are interesting and educational in their own right. The reader learns about subjects ranging from how oil affects the development of fish embryos to how chemicals called phthalates might pose a risk when used in children’s toys.

Other details are extraneous to the story and needlessly lengthen it. These especially involve the attributes of persons and places outside ExxonMobil itself. We read, for example, about the facial features and educational background of the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Equatorial Guinea, and about how someone speaking at a conference did so “in a plush, wood-paneled conference room, at a podium embossed with the luxury hotel’s emblem.” Such descriptive excursions convey the impression of a diligent and observant reporter who, having amassed voluminous material in the course of his research, could not bear to see so much of it remain in his notebooks and not get into print.

Coll received only limited cooperation from ExxonMobil. The company granted him a few interviews with current executives (but not with Tillerson). Far more of his interviews, with people currently or formerly associated with ExxonMobil, involved no authorization from the company. Some of the interviewees understandably requested anonymity. Coll says that out of dozens of parties reached during fact-checking of his manuscript, the corporation itself was the only one declining to participate.

The resulting book is as accurate and objective as a highly experienced professional journalist can make it. Private Empire is eminently fair to its subject. It contains a wealth of material that could be mined by those seeking either to praise ExxonMobil or to excoriate it, but Coll’s objective is to do neither.

Along with all the reasons for public-spirited citizens to be wary of how ExxonMobil has used its immense power, there are reasons to admire it. The discipline and prowess that enabled the company to reach the pinnacle of the private sector come through clearly in Coll’s account. A similarly mixed appraisal could be applied to the most prominent person in the book, former CEO Raymond (whom Coll did interview). He could easily be a poster child for corporate greed, with his retrograde attitude toward climate change and a controversial retirement package valued at $400 million. But he also was a remarkably effective executive who still elicits awe and admiration from many former ExxonMobil employees who agree he was a bear to work for.

A corporation such as ExxonMobil that has interests that do not coincide with any one country—even its home country—and is as large and powerful as many states, needs to be treated in many respects as if it were a state. Like Australia, Colombia, or France, it shares many interests with the United States. As an ally, it can be a partner in mutually worthwhile endeavors. But as with other allies, the respects in which its interests diverge from those of the United States also must be kept in mind as public policy is made. That the biggest corporation of today is not anything like the General Motors of Charles Wilson’s day is not to be grieved or welcomed—just recognized as a reality to be dealt with.

Paul Pillar

Paul Pillar is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.