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Private Empire: Feast Of Data, Famine Of Vision

May 4th, 2012 by Alison · 4 Comments · books, energy

What’s the most profitable, secretive and possibly hated company in the U.S.? ExxonMobil, the subject of two-time Pultizer prize winning Steve Coll’s just-released book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil And American Power. I eagerly devoured my 636 page advance copy (this is my first ‘professional’ review; it’s part of a virtual book tour).

My short report? This book feeds us a richly informative meal, in prose crisp as a Gravenstein apple at the height of autumn. Yet, it leaves us bereft of the harder-to-find nutrients that we need the most from nonfiction books. Let me explain, first with examples about Private Empire’s feast of information.

In 1998 a coalition of 17 Indonesian human rights groups reported that Mobil Oil had provided crucial logistic support to the Indonesian (T.N.I.) army in Aceh that tortured and buried at least two thousand victims in secret graves. For example, Mobil’s bulldozers had been used to dig mass graves (Mobil said this was done unbeknownst to them). Fully known to them, though, was that they routinely paid the salaries of T.N.I. soldiers. That’s because the T.N.I. soldiers, in addition to their robust activities that violated human rights, also protected Mobil’s oil fields.

All this information was coming out during the merger process. Exxon bought and merged with Mobil regardless. More than a decade later, ExxonMobil was still refusing to take any responsibility for its role in the atrocities and human rights violations. The stonewall approach is EM’s trademark.

Moreover, the above exemplifies the global oil situation. The bulk of the world’s remaining oil lies in poor, unstable countries. Chad, like Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and most oil-rich countries, is run by a dictatorship that abuses its own people (another definition for a bad human rights record). The oil industry ends up supporting those exact regimes. For instance, the language in EM’s oil contract with Chad meant essentially that Chad could be prohibited from broadening its civic freedoms or permitting unions to organize if those things would raise EM’s costs. Much research points to oil actually being one of the causes of these countries’ ongoing poverty and instability. This syndrome is called the resource curse, and has multiple faces. For example, Saudi Arabia is awash in oil money, yet has millions of people teeming around without jobs. They lack employment  — but they’ve got plenty of anger at the U.S.

The hostility between the U.S. and the oil-rich countries it depends on has led to the notion of  energy independence.  But unfortunately, the feel-good idea of energy independence has no grounding in reality. Almost no electricity in the U.S. is produced by oil any more. Yet, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are heralded by many as the road to energy independence. That would only be true if the U.S. were willing and able to stop driving, flying and delivering its goods via trucks. We do need lots of renewable energy – but oil is a different matter.

President Bush in his second term stated the (inconvenient) truth that the U.S. is addicted to oil. But, like other presidents of both parties before him, he neither addressed that problem nor developed a coherent national energy policy. Mr. Coll notes that our culture depends about equally on electric power and oil (gasoline), both of which pollute heavily and pose environmental threats. Yet, the power industry is regulated by the government, while the oil industry is not. What is wrong with this picture? Mr. Coll stays mute.

We learn that in EM’s spill response plans, the media management section is four times longer than the section on oil removal (cleanup) and eight times longer than its material on resource protection. What are the implications of a corporation obsessing about image management (surface) at the expense of taking actual responsibility for the damages it inflicts (substance)? Mr. Coll declines to address that question.

A high-level EM employee reported that its system for maintaining confidential information was far more severe than anything she had seen while previously holding a top secret clearance at the White House. The ExxonMobil culture is safety-obsessed and hyperdisciplined. It worships profit – as do stockholders and much of  U.S. culture, despite the appalling prices often paid for those profits. The worst of those prices is EM’s long  denial of global warming and aggressive disinformation campaign that prevented early action.

Steve Coll

Mr. Coll’s investigative journalism and writing are impartial as Jack Webb in Dragnet: ‘just the facts’. This style wins him steady access to interviews with heavyweights like Lee Raymond, the retired long-time CEO of EM. However, facts are static of themselves. They don’t lead to transformation. An example of a transformative nonfiction book was Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. Ms. Carson updated our culture’s mental maps and created an awakened population which eventually insisted on governmental reforms in pesticide use – and a significantly healthier country.

Mr. Coll swallows assumptions that should be pulled from our collective mouths and examined with hard eyes. Yes, we are oil-addicted. Therefore, what about living differently than we’re living now, using less oil and gasoline? Humans have changed their lifestyles throughout their entire history, adapting to innumerable changes, and managing to thrive.  Mr. Coll assumes that is out of the question, while all the science on global warming makes clear that our world will experience massive disruptions as temperatures and oceans rise. We will have to change. Mr. Coll doesn’t address that. He is facing the past, not the future.

Mr. Coll closes his massive work with a comparison/contrast of EM’s and the U.S.’s financial profiles. In 1999 they were both solvent, with revenues larger than expenditures [this was at the close of Clinton’s eight years of presidency]. By  August 2012, the net cash flow of the US was negative 5.7 trillion. EM’s net cash flow was positive 493 billion. Important information. But, what are its implications? How should responsible citizens respond to a corporation that dwarfs their own government in strength? Mr. Coll declines to give us any ideas.

Private Empire gives us a feast of data. But it doesn’t offer us vision or leadership — and those are the nutrients that our global-warming-imperiled world sorely lacks. I know Mr. Coll didn’t set out to write a visionary book.   But I suggest that, having already won two Pulitzers for ‘just the facts’ books, that his fellow citizens need him to travel outside that box. I challenge Mr. Coll, whom I sincerely respect, to stretch beyond fact-based, traditional journalism into writing that gives us visionary leadership.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • trish

    You raise some really great questions! Even without reading the book, I feel like I should take steps to do something based on the few facts you mentioned, but I don’t know what that is.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  • Alison

    Trish, it’s a pleasure to be one of the reviewers on the book tour. I’m going to visit the sites of some fellow reviewers to hear what their thoughts are, too.

  • GrnPwrGuy

    I loved the line “the power industry is regulated by the government, while the oil industry is not. What is wrong with this picture?” Was that taken from the book?

    • Alison

      Green Power Guy: I am the one who’s directly questioning what’s wrong with the picture. Mr. Coll alluded to it being questionable that the oil industry goes unregulated. I ‘m going farther than he does .

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