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Private Empire

By · 23 April, 2017 · Book Club, Features

Every month, we look at a non-fiction book chosen to challenge your perspective on the world, teach you something new and/or just plain entertain. Read along with us, and let us know what you think.

Steve Coll’s Private Empire tells the story of ExxonMobil, the multinational oil and gas company with an annual turnover greater than the GDP of most countries. Coll’s story opens with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and covers the 20 years that followed, right up to BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. The story travels from the Niger Delta to Siberia, from deep in the Indonesian jungle to the corridors of power in Washington.

Coll’s writing is compelling, and he weaves a complex and nuanced picture of the energy giant over those two decades. Private Empire does not give us a narrative of a multinational corporation dependent on the US government as a constant ally. Rather, we find that ExxonMobil sees itself as an independent entity with its own foreign policy to manage, and with operations sprawling across many countries and jurisdictions. Coll tells us:

“Exxon’s investments in a particular oil and gas field could be premised on a production life span of forty or more years. During that time, the United States might change its president and its foreign and energy policies at least half a dozen times. Overseas, a project’s host country might pass through multiple coups and political upheavals during the same four decades.”

Throughout the book, we see that Exxon has tried to manage this volatility in a multitude of ways – to varying effect, and sometimes with devastating consequences.

Private Empire is a packed book – it also manages to cover topics such as the public debate about climate change, resource nationalism, and Exxon’s homogenous internal culture and extreme safety discipline. Throughout, Coll puts ExxonMobil’s incentives and internal workings on display.

Private Empire is a great read at any time – but the appointment of its former CEO, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State under Donald Trump brings a new dimension to its story. It’s certainly worth thinking about how the deal making mentality of ExxonMobil foreign policy might translate if deployed on behalf of the United States.

Get the book and start reading

Check out this video by CNN Money on Rex Tillerson, made in the lead-up to his appointment as Secretary of State, for more:

What did you think of Private Empire? Tell us in the comments!

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