Cover image of "Private Empire," a book about the truth about ExxonMobil

Until recently, when Amazon emerged as such a deserving target of opprobrium, ExxonMobil was, without doubt, our country’s most-hated corporation. The two companies may compete for that distinction today. Private Empire is Steve Coll’s admirable attempt to explain the truth about ExxonMobil—how and why the world’s most profitable private oil company became a pariah, and it has changed in recent years. Oh, yes, it has changed. And recently, years after the publication of this book, shareholders won a rare victory to change it even more.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

John D. Rockefeller’s favorite offspring

Unless you’re under the age of 40, you were already aware of the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989. It was the country’s biggest oil spill until BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. You may also know that ExxonMobil is the direct descendant of the Standard Oil trust assembled in the 19th Century by the quintessential robber baron, John D. Rockefeller. So the company’s historic unpopularity may not be a surprise to you.

The truth about ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil came into existence in its present form in 1999, with the acquisition of Mobil Oil, another Standard offspring. By that point, it had already been rivaling its ancestor for public displeasure for a decade as a result of Exxon Valdez. Steve Coll’s book appeared two years after the BP disaster. “Fortune had ranked the corporation as America’s sixth most admired before the accident,” he notes. “Afterward, it fell to one hundred and tenth.” And it can hardly have risen during the past decade, as ExxonMobil is still considered the poster child for climate change denial. (Fortune no longer assigns ranking numbers below the top fifty.)

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll (2012) 700 pages ★★★★☆

Map showing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which changed the public perception of the truth about ExxonMobil
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast and the Gulf itself for years afterward. This overlay image shows the extent of the damage. Image: SkyTruth

Engineers with the One Right Answer

It’s no mystery why ExxonMobil stayed so unpopular many years after the Exxon Valdez spill. A heavy-handed Texan named Lee Raymond (1938-) set the company’s tone and policy during his 12-year reign as CEO (1993-2005). “Exxon maintained a ‘kind of 1950s Southern religious culture,’ said an executive who served on the corporation’s board of directors during the Raymond era. ‘They’re all engineers, mostly white males, mostly from the South . . . They shared a belief in the One Right Answer, that you would solve the equation and that would be the answer, and it didn’t need to be debated.'”

Whatever that One Right Answer might have been, it was closely held unless Raymond thought it needed to be made public. As one new employee he brought on observed, “the oil corporation’s system for maintaining confidential information was far more severe than anything she had seen while holding top secret clearance at the White House.” The truth about ExxonMobil was what Lee Raymond said it was.

A turnaround on climate change

Image of Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO
Rex Tillerson

Raymond insisted that scientists hadn’t proved the reality of human-caused global warming. That led the company to invest in Right-Wing think tanks and other front groups campaigning against any proposals to regulate carbon emissions. But Raymond’s successor, Rex Tillerson (1952-), despite his similar background, proved far more resilient on the issue. He discontinued the corporation’s active opposition to seeking climate change solutions. Later, Tillerson took a high-profile public position in favor of a carbon tax. Tillerson’s willingness to deal with climate change may help explain his short tenure as US Secretary of State in the Trump Administration.

As Coll notes, “Rex Tillerson believed that transformational change would upend the oil business and global energy economy eventually. Breakthrough batteries might be the pathway, or breakthrough biofuels, or cheaper, more efficient solar technology, or some combination of those technologies, or perhaps something unimagined in the present. Not anytime soon, however. For two decades and probably much longer, Tillerson’s Management Committee concluded . . . [that] ExxonMobil could feel secure about its investments in oil and gas.” Thus, the hidden truth about ExxonMobil was that life would go on unchanged for one of the world’s largest companies for decades to come.

Ahead, years of increasing environmental costs

Like Daniel Yergin in his excellent book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, Coll debunks the notion of Peak Oil, quoting ExxonMobil executives on the significant evidence against it. However, what both authors underplay is that the large new deposits of oil and natural gas the companies are adding to their reserves, seemingly by the day, tend to require more expensive and environmentally more damaging methods of extraction. Peak Oil may not be a reality, but we’re surely in for years of increasing costs, both financial and environmental, to extract fossil fuels. And that seems certain even if the leadership of the world’s major countries manage to cap and then reduce carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, there seems little likelihood of that. ExxonMobil’s own strategic plan projects rising sales of petroleum and natural gas at least until 2030—by which point the total load of carbon in the atmosphere will be so great that many of the world’s coastal cities will all be likely to drown in rising water by the end of the century.

Global interests, not national

Private Empire showcases Coll’s exhaustive research on ExxonMobil in its 700 pages. The book is structured chronologically, focusing on the period from 1989 to 2011. Along the way, Coll constructs detailed scenarios that reveal the issues confronting the company in a number of countries where it sources oil or gas (or mightily tries to do so): Chad, Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Iraq, and Qatar, among others. “ExxonMobil’s interests were global, not national,” he writes. Though the book is subtitled ExxonMobil and American Power, Coll makes clear that the corporation is anything but an expression of American power. In fact, he details the sometimes fractious relationship the company had even with the oil-friendly Administration of George W. Bush, despite Lee Raymond’s friendship with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Private Empire is a modern-day testimonial to the even-handedness of “objective journalism.” Coll almost never reveals his personal feelings about the company and its misdeeds. In fact, the book will probably be read by some as an apologia for ExxonMobil. It’s not: the author is just too good at ferreting out the facts. On balance, it’s entirely clear why so many people hate ExxonMobil with such fervor.

About the author

Image of Steve Coll, author of this book that tells the truth about ExxonMobil
Steve Coll. Image:

Steve Coll is currently Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and a staff writer for the New Yorker. One of America’s most outstanding journalists, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his reporting on the SEC, the other for his 2005 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. From 2007 to 2012 he worked as President and CEO of a Washington think tank, New America, having previously served as an editor of The Washington Post.  

Check out Daniel Yergin’s excellent book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (A brilliant survey of energy issues).

Like to read books about business? Check out My 10 favorite books about business history.

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