Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Inside an Oil Empire: A Conversation with Steve Coll on ExxonMobil

Steve Coll has traveled the world reporting on nuclear weapons, the CIA, and terrorists in the Middle East for The New Yorker and Washington Post. But he may have found his biggest reporting challenge yet right here in Texas.

In his new book, ‘Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,’ Coll takes a close look at how the oil giant has become one of the most powerful organizations in the world. We recently spoke to Coll about his new book.

Q: So tell us why you decided to look into this company.

A: What’s so fascinating about ExxonMobil is their sheer scale. 450 billion dollars-plus in revenues last year, that’s more than the economic activity of most countries. But they’re rarely scrutinized by anyone, compared to the governmental departments that we cover in Washington as reporters. I worked on this project for four years and there was really no one in my side-view mirrors.

Q: How did you go about investigating them? What were some of the difficulties you came across?

A: It’s an outside-in process, when you take on a big, large, closed subject like this. And I find that, especially at the beginning, I have to do everything all at once. Explore all channels. So in a case of ExxonMobil that means I filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests early on to the State Department, looking for cables and other documents describing ExxonMobil’s activity in countries where I knew they operated, and where I knew there was trouble. So if I crafted the FOIA in the right way, around the right time, and I figured whatever came out would be useful. That turned out to be true, years later, because it takes a while to get stuff out of the government.

I also looked at lawsuits, because a company like ExxonMobil is constantly in litigation in the United States. And our open court system means that those records — trial records, documents obtained during discovery in civil lawsuits — those can be enormously helpful. It’s a little bit hard as a method, because there’s so many lawsuits, and you’re kind of looking for a needle in the haystack.

And then you look for interviewing opportunities. People who’ve retired, people who’ve left in a dispute with the corporation.  Every opportunity you can find. I found ExxonMobil to be a hard target, because they’re a very disciplined company. They lock up all their employees with non-disclosure agreements, so they make people nervous. So I would say the rate of refusal in trying to get interviews was higher in ExxonMobil’s case than, say, the Central Intelligence Agency. Since 9/11, CIA officers must’ve published at least two dozen memoirs of one sort or another. You don’t see a lot of ExxonMobil memoirs coming out into the marketplace.

Q: So ExxonMobil is headquartered in Irving, Texas. But they weren’t always here. Tell me a little bit about how they ended up in the Lone Star State.

A: They were a child of Standard Oil, and they were headquartered in Manhattan for many, many decades until 1993, when they decided they needed to get out of New York for various reasons. So they looked around the country, and they settled on Texas.

And they didn’t want to be in Houston, where so much of the rest of the global upstream [oil] industry is concentrated. They had their own divisions there, [but] they wanted something separate for their headquarters. And they chose Irving for its convenience, and also just to be away from Houston.

But the other part of it was, I think it really reinforced their “Don’t Mess With Us” attitude, in the post-Cold War world, identifying more and more with suspicion of government that was rising in the United States. Their executives were almost uniformly from a very strong free market, anti-government perspective. Even Rex Tillerson, who’s the current chief executive, recently told a magazine that his favorite book in the world is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which is this touchstone for Libertarians and the Tea Party movement.

Now it’s sort of odd that a large corporation, born in the American political system, would be run by a group of obviously very smart and very competent executives — who, nonetheless, hold their own government in that state of suspicion. I mean, all large industrial democracies have a giant oil company in their midst, it’s part of the world we live in: Total in France, or BP in Britain, but those companies are much more in sync with their governments. And here you have almost this state of opposition between a Texas-headquarted company and Washington that shapes the way that the politics of our oil economy works.

Stay tuned for more from our interview this week.


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