Burning Up the World

Luke Mitchell

  • BuyPrivate Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll
    Allen Lane, 704 pp, £25.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 84614 659 6

In November 1902, Ida Tarbell published ‘The Birth of an Industry’, the first of 19 reports for McClure’s Magazine about the organisation that had come to control 90 per cent of the business – still new at the time – of producing oil. Collected two years later in her History of the Standard Oil Company, the series did little to celebrate the company or its founder, John D. Rockefeller. ‘It is doubtful if there has ever been a time since 1872 when he has run a race with a competitor and started fair,’ Tarbell wrote. But she didn’t call for an end to the corporate form Rockefeller had done so much to invent. Instead, she saw in his creation an ideal case study. ‘The perfection of the organisation of the Standard,’ she wrote, ‘the ability and daring with which it has carried out its projects, make it the pre-eminent trust of the world, the one whose story is best fitted to illuminate the subject of combinations of capital.’ Tarbell grew up in Pennsylvania oil country, and admired the ingenuity and ambition of the independent oilmen (her father among them) who had ‘peopled a waste place of the earth’ and ‘added millions upon millions of dollars to the wealth of the United States’. She admired Rockefeller’s genius and discipline as well, but for Tarbell, and eventually for the US government, Standard’s long record of collusion, espionage and predatory pricing was too much. ‘I was willing that they should combine and grow as big and rich as they could,’ Tarbell later wrote. ‘But they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me.’ In 1911, the Supreme Court, influenced in part by Tarbell’s disappointed muckraking, split Rockefeller’s company into 34 ‘baby Standards’. In 1973, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, largest of the babies, changed its name to Exxon Corporation. And in 1998 Exxon recombined with the Standard Oil Company of New York, which had by then changed its name to Mobil. The new company, with eighty thousand employees in nearly two hundred countries, remains our ‘pre-eminent trust’, but – as Steve Coll argues in his fine bookend to Tarbell’s masterpiece – it has also become something more.

Coll picks up the story in 1989 with the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, which dumped 240,000 barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska. He goes on to recount, among other sensational episodes, the lethally bungled kidnapping in 1992 of an Exxon division president from the driveway of his New Jersey mansion; an abortive rebel siege of an ExxonMobil outpost in Aceh in 2001; the failed coup (funded in part by Mark Thatcher) against the ExxonMobil-backed president of Equatorial Guinea in 2004; and the unsteady rise in 2006 of Nigerian oil pirates, whose ‘picaresque criminality – their head scarves, bandoliers and speedboats; their bank robbery techniques, which included using massive charges of dynamite to blast away reinforced steel doors – seemed increasingly inspired by Hollywood’. Like Tarbell, Coll has constructed a narrative around the oilmen’s extraordinary efforts to stay a step ahead of anyone who might get between them and some new patch of crude. Where kidnappers, rebels, conspirators and (for the most part) pirates failed, ExxonMobil succeeded. But Private Empire is no boy’s own adventure for middle managers.

The pivotal event in the history of ExxonMobil, as Coll sees it, wasn’t the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, important though that was, but the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘The Cold War’s end,’ he writes, ‘signalled a coming era when non-governmental actors – corporations, philanthropies, terrorist cells and media networks – all gained relative power.’ The title of Daniel Yergin’s history of the oil industry, The Prize (1991), came from a similar argument made by Winston Churchill in 1911, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. The best way to prepare for war with Germany, Churchill believed, would be to upgrade the Royal Navy so that it used oil as fuel rather than coal. It would be risky, in large part because ‘the oil supplies of the world were in the hands of vast oil trusts under foreign control.’ But if ‘we overcame the difficulties and surmounted the risks, we should be able to raise the whole power and efficiency of the navy to a definitely higher level; better ships, better crews, higher economies, more intense forms of war power – in a word, mastery itself was the prize of the venture’. As Yergin noted, winning such a prize ‘inevitably meant a collision between the objectives of oil companies and the interests of nation-states.’ This clash is the real subject of Coll’s book. A single nation, the United States, once had the power to break apart the mighty Standard Oil Company. But in the post-Soviet era, ExxonMobil prevailed.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in