Over a Barrel: America and the Empire of Oil
Eddie J. Girdner
Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. 685 pages.
ExxonMobil became the largest private corporation in the United States after the merger of Exxon with Mobil in l998. It is also the most profitable company with huge annual profits in the range of thirty billion dollars. Private Empire begins with the saga of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in l989 and ends with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The BP oil spill dumped twenty times more oil in the environment than the Exxon Valdez accident. Major disasters are bound to happen in the oil business and by this time the world was getting used to them.
One can gain a good deal of insight about how a major US multinational corporation works from this book which is based upon hundreds of interviews and corporate and government documents. ExxonMobil is a company which Americans love to hate, but which is at the very heart of the American system of capitalism and global empire. ExxonMobil operates globally in some 200 countries.
The ExxonMobil oil spill that dumped a quarter of a million barrels of oil into Prince William Sound stamped major oil corporations as reckless despoilers of the environment in the American psyche. It was a landmark event that would not soon be forgotten by Americans, seeing wildlife drenched and drowning in sticky black oil. In contrast, the ExxonMobil pipeline leak that dumped four times as much oil in Eastern Nigeria just ten days after the Deepwater Horizon production platform burned and sank, was hardly reported. It would not figure highly in the American press, nor cause the corporation a major headache. The corporation’s worry was about its image where it counted and potential liability in court, not the environment. The well-researched stories in this book are important in bringing to light ExxonMobil operations in the United States and around the globe. The book explores important aspects of the oil industry that are largely hidden from most Americans.
Steve Coll is a former New York Times reporter who has written on such timely topics as Afghanistan, the bin Ladens, and South Asian politics. He is currently the president of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. It is surely telling that an author can write such a long and detailed book about the largest American corporation, generating some thirty billion dollars of profit a year, and never once mention the word “capitalism.” Coll is a great writer and I have greatly enjoyed his works. But it must be said that writing within the American ideological cocoon, he has keen sense of what it is acceptable to say and what is not. The system, of course is not to be questioned.
While it cannot be stated explicitly, the book is essentially about how the actually existing system of global capitalism is systematically destroying the global environment, how deeply institutionalized this catastrophic system is, and why the current era of ecological devastation is going to continue long into the future. Global warming is going to wreak more and more havoc. There is nothing to stop this and little chance of even slowing it down, in the mad, even insane, drive for profits that such global corporations must pursue to continue to exist. The only thing that is going kill the existing system of global capitalism is capitalism itself. That time will come, but what kind of world it will be, no one knows.
ExxonMobil is a great corporation, a model of excellence, in terms of the criteria of business schools across the world. On the other hand, to propagandize with millions of dollars, to purposely sow confusion among the public about global warming, to preserve profits is quite clearly immoral, despicable, grotesque, even mad. Buying votes in the American Congress is also not democratic, although it passes muster as such in America. And in American Politics textbooks. Nevertheless, it is the purpose of every business school to train individuals to emulate this very behavior. To call such practices immoral is absolutely correct, but irrelevant. Corporations which do not follow this line of practice will disappear and be defeated by the likes of ExxonMobil or BP. The smaller companies ride the bandwagon in the wake of the top corporation’s juggernaut. It is simply the system and ExxonMobil has learned it thoroughly and has disciplined its workers to play the game better than anyone else. Within the existing system of global capitalism it is the paradigm successful model of corporate success and every other corporation that wants to be successful can learn from this model.
Those who work for ExxonMobil are generally serious and hard-working people. They deserve credit for excellence in their line of work in the pursuit of efficiency and maximizing the return on employed capital. Many of them genuinely believe in what they are doing and ground their pursuit of profit in the Judeo-Christian tradition of their upbringing. Many of them were Boy Scouts, which teaches a strict sense of discipline and morality.
Coll goes into the background of the major players and exposes interesting details of the complex stories which involve the world’s largest corporation. The book is interesting to read and highly instructive. Unfortunately learning more about such global realities may not make one happier.
Beginning with the Alaska oil spill, one gets an insight into what really happened that night when the huge tanker with one and a quarter barrels of oil ran aground. And what events then followed. A fifth of the load leaked into Prince William Sound, creating massive ecological damage. The captain of the ship was drunk and left the bridge saying he needed to take care of some paperwork. It was a wake-up call for Exxon. The company tightened up its operations and emphasized safety. The Operations Integrity Management System (OIMS) emphasized discipline and accountability. The company was inflexible, focused upon performance, driven by numbers. A culture of discipline ruled. And the bottom line was financial performance.
ExxonMobil is a corporate state within the American state, operating under secrecy, forcefully protecting itself from competition and lawsuits. It is geared to breaking all records in terms of profits. The company produced one and a half billion barrels of oil and gas each year and sold 50 billion gallons of petrol worldwide.
The story takes one through the kidnapping and death of a senior Exxon executive in 1992 and the move to politically conservative Irving, Texas from Manhattan in l987.
The company under Lee Raymond was exceptionally profitable when oil prices were high and also when they were low. Operating in 200 countries with some 80,000 employees, of which only two percent were Americans, it was also a powerful political actor that could act against the interests of the US Government. But the corporation was seen as lacking human factors. It was set aside from even other major oil corporations in this respect. And there was no attempt to adapt to the concerns of environmentalists after the l970s. This only changed marginally when Rex Tillerson took over from Raymond. Middle and upper managers of the firm could expect to become millionaires over their long career.
For Lee Raymond, the focus was on ROCE, return on capital employed, which was around 22 percent a year. Globally, ExxonMobil had to deal with increasing resource nationalism. Many countries, including those in the Middle East, seized back oil fields from Western companies. This happened in Saudi Arabia too. By the 1990s, almost all the oil in the Middle East was off limits to private corporate ownership.
A major concern of companies was the need to replace their booked oil reserves each year. Otherwise, their stock values would suffer and they risked falling into liquidation. One problem was that ExxonMobil owned a large amount of the tar sands in Canada, which contained oil. Technically, these could not be counted as booked reserves, according to the rules of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The company counted them anyway in their reports to stock owners to enhance the value of their stock.
Interestingly, most Americans do not even know where their oil comes from. Surely, to some extent this is a function of the severe de-politicization that is endemic in America. Americans think that most of oil used in the United States comes from Saudi Arabia. Actually, Canada, Mexico and Venezuela supply more oil.
ExxonMobil had another problem: too much cash. This reached 81 billion dollars in l998. When Exxon merged with Mobil, the company cut 20,000 jobs and reduced operating costs by $8 billion. It became the largest corporation in the United States with $228 billion in revenue the first year. This is more than the GDP of Norway. Only 20 states in the world have a larger GNP. It ranks 45th among the top economic entities of the world.
While Americans generally have a domestic view, the transnational corporation has a global view to making profit quite independent of the US Government. The Washington office of the corporation is a sort of Embassy. It engages in much lobbying, of course. This is a de facto system of bribery, but is somehow construed to be part of American democracy by political scientists and the text books within the prevailing ideology of American politics.
Lobbying takes place through the American Petroleum Institute as well as through the efforts of other company staff on Capitol Hill and the White House. Votes are tracked and the money handed out for political campaigns according to who votes in the interests of the corporation. Legislators are essentially being paid to vote the interests of the corporation. Any place else in the world this would be seen as a simple bribe.
The corporation is so powerful, that it generally wants the US Government to stay out of its affairs. But for serious help, the company can turn to the White House. The Chairman could simply pick up the phone and talk to Vice President, Dick Cheney.
The corporation typically opposes all government regulation and fears the spread of European ideas, particularly curbs on carbon emissions and the precautionary principle of passing laws to preserve the environment. Researchers were paid to write papers which sowed confusion among the public about global warming. The polls show that it worked, with a majority of Americans now believing that global warming is not happening. Still there came a point, when a change in policy was called for, after the departure of Lee Raymond. This did not go so far as to admit that there was actual man-made global warming. It was largely a public relations exercise.
Raymond even advised the Chinese to resist Washington’s attempt to get them to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The corporation formed a Global Climate Coalition, a front group to block climate change legislation in the US, and spent some eight million dollars on so-called research.
The story covers major problems in getting the gas and oil out in such places as Indonesia, West Africa, Chad, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Venezuela and Iraq. The company faces the difficulty of extracting gas and oil where local populations can become hostile and attack. One case explored by Coll happened in the province of Aceh in Indonesia. The Free Aceh Movement (The Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) carried out violence against the company. Indonesian Government troops from the TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia) patrolled the LNG plant and were paid by ExxonMobil. They carried out many human rights violations, such as shooting, torture, rape and beatings.
During the Clinton Administration, there was an effort to address this issue with the launching of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. Many corporations signed up, but Lee Raymond refused. He said that ExxonMobil had its own principles. Of course, every effort was being made to avoid lawsuits. When the company lost, it appealed. Company executives feared that they would be sued for the brutality carried out in Aceh. They were, in Washington, DC ,and fought bitterly against compensation for those wronged. The Bush Administration was on the verge of listing the GAM leaders as terrorists.
In Equatorial Guinea, ExxonMobil operates in the offshore Zafro and Alba Oil Fields. The country was seen as “politically toxic.” The US government distanced itself from dealings and the US Embassy was closed down for some time. The dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, came to power and controlled the economy through his family. The corporation did not consider that the way the country was being run was their concern. They were there to get the oil and make money. They followed Dick Cheney who once said that companies had to go where the oil was and not where there were good governments. The good Lord did not see fit to put the oil in places that were safe and well governed.
President Obiang visited Washington, on various shopping trips and fell in love with the impressive façade of the Riggs Bank in Washington. He decided to deposit his country’s oil money there. There were soon some $200 million in the account with an additional $20 million expected monthly. Eventually, the President persuaded the George W. Bush Government to open a new US Embassy in the country. But the windfall for the bank soon resulted in trouble with the government, when unaccountable amounts of money were disappearing.
In southern Chad, a pipeline was built to carry ExxonMobil oil overland to the west coast of Africa. Chad is a terribly poor country, twice the size of Texas with a literacy rate of less than fifty percent. Idriss Deby had come to power and ran the country with his relatives and cronies. He later ran into trouble with the World Bank over the lack of social spending.
One reason why ExxonMobil did not worry greatly about what local governments did was the “stability clause” in its contracts, such as in Chad. This device grandfathers in provisions for the company that no future government could change in the future. This might even mean that social spending by the government could be illegal under the clause if it cost the corporation money. This meant that Exxon ruled over its own affairs in the country, effectively stripping Chad of sovereignty. Exxon’s profits in Chad in l988 reached 5.3 billion dollars.
To address the “resource curse,” of oil-rich weak states like Chad, the World Bank had been made a partner to the deal. The Government would be required to spend a certain portion of its oil revenues on education, health and social welfare. This constituted a double standard, of course, as states such as Saudi Arabia were free to spend the money as they desired. For ExxonMobil, their interests were largely confined to the oil and regional political stability.
After 9-11, twenty-five percent of American oil imports were coming from West Africa so terrorism was also a concern.
When George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, global warming was becoming a larger concern to environmentalists. The Bush Government was top heavy with Texas oil men who were not going to address the issue of carbon emissions. Vice President Cheney’s model was primarily to get the oil men together and let them write their own policies. To ward off potential danger coming from the scientific community, ExxonMobil funded their own research on global warming with an energy project at Stanford University along with General Electric and Toyota. One hundred million dollars of the $225 million came from ExxonMobil.
For Greenpeace, big oil, the biggest oil, seemed the perfect target in 2001. ExxonMobil’s position was that there was no such thing as global warming. The company wanted to prevent any legislation requiring caps on carbon emissions. So ExxonMobil funded skepticism, to increase doubt in the public mind. ExxonMobil funded right wing groups such as the CATO Institute for Public Policy Research and the American Enterprise Institute. A US Senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, called the idea of man-made global warming a “hoax.” Behind the scenes, in fact, ExxonMobil not only believed in global warming but was trying to use it to gain insight into oil exploration.
Lee Raymond would demonstrate no flexibility on the issue of global warming as long as he led the company. He doubted the scientific validity of public opinion surveys. In any event, he saw no reason to allow public opinion to drive decision making. The public was naturally skeptical of big oil and big corporations in general. There was a strong perception that the company was “hostile to social responsibility” as charged by Human Rights Watch. But there was also the perception that when the company decided to do something, it did it well.
The company tended to sneer at the efforts of BP to engage in green washing with its sun and flower symbols on petrol stations. This kind of stuff was not for ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil was seen as having an authoritarian top-down culture and was most popular in only one country, Singapore.
Even with all their money, knowledge, and expertise, a company like ExxonMobil could sometimes get it wrong. Lee Raymond decided that it was futile to try to predict the future price of oil. This depended too much upon unforeseen global events, wars and political instability. On the other hand, the company should be able to predict trends in supply and production. But in the case of natural gas, the company failed.
ExxonMobil operated Qatar’s North Field where they owned an estimated 800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. They built a production facility to produce Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). The company’s projections were that the gas production in the United States had peaked. This would turn out to be wrong with new technology to extract gas from rock formations in a few years.
With resource nationalism, acquiring booked reserves was getting more difficult. The only possible places in the world were Russia, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Texas oil men in the George W. Bush Government had their eye on Iraq. Some, who knew little about the country, even dreamed of the privatization of oil in the country.
In the event, the American and British governments tended to protest too much about the accusation that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was about oil. One saw the same sort of blanket denials on both sides of the Atlantic. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scoffed that the war had “literally nothing to do with oil.” I guess it had more to do with asparagus for inorganic Don. But the world was not quite that gullible. The concern of oil corporations with keeping up their booked reserves in order to keep their stock prices high was a detail which was hidden from the public. Iraq surely seemed to be an exciting opportunity in this aspect if the US could carry out its plans to totally make over the laws of the entire country. We now know how eager the major oil companies were to get their hands on Iraqi oil. For people in the Bush Government, the invasion of Iraq seemed to be a cost effective way to “expand booked oil reserves.” If oil companies could use the country to bank reserves, their profits would greatly benefit, even if they did not pump a drop of oil. As it turned out, it was not so easy, and resource nationalism asserted itself in Iraq after the war. The US could not even push the country into passing an oil law, with dire threats. Nevertheless, even with all the legal uncertainty, the oil firms have now rushed in. The Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq is much more friendly to foreign companies and ExxonMobil is there signing deals, which Baghdad sees as illegal. It has found plenty of reserves to book. The latest deal has been signed between the Turkey and ExxonMobil to explore for oil in northern Iraq.
There were cross-cutting interests and contradictions. Some neocons in the Bush Administration wanted to bust oil nationalism, get Iraq out of OPEC, increase production, and cheapen the price of oil with Iraqi oil. This would benefit the US economy, provide cheaper oil for the vast needs of the US military machine, and help the balance of payments. For the oil majors, like ExxonMobil, they were enjoying windfall profit because of high oil prices. The invasion and civil war in Iraq had shot prices even higher giving them higher profits. Why would they want to see vast production in Iraq to bring prices down? They could get their hands on the oil, and be in the money for the next half century of more, with only a gradual increase in production. The oil majors were going to make money no matter what happened to the prices.
Philip Carroll, who had run Shell-USA was sent to Iraq to restructure the oil industry. As an oil man, he was aware that privatization was a pipe dream of those at AEI that could not work. He thought that Iraqis could be sent to the US for training in the oil industry. Ironically, due to the sanctions and the war, most of Iraq’s expert technicians had left the country long ago.
For Lee Raymond at ExxonMobil, with his eyes turned to profit, the entire world was a unified oil market. Let the market work on a global basis and keep banking the profits. This was not the way oil was viewed in China and Russia. Access to oil was a part of national power and these countries did not want to depend totally upon foreign oil. For the Russian President, Putin, Russia would use its oil and gas to control and punish other countries. ExxonMobil was set to clash with Russia over this approach.
Oil executives and politicians in the United States did not understand Putin’s thinking on oil. Again, it was resource nationalism, state power, and Putin would use it to preserve and expand Russian state power. He was not just pumping oil into the global market, as ExxonMobil saw it, rather as a corporate business empire independent of the state. Exxon was fully prepared to go against the interests of the United States for profits and did not hesitate to do so. Their bottom line was profits and not the United States of America.
Russia was no longer a communist country. The country had huge oil and gas reserves. George W. Bush and his oil men buddied up to Putin at the Texas ranch and began to envision US-Russian cooperation on oil. Russia might be a place where American companies could book huge reserves if things worked out. But they were not dealing with a banana republic.
Previously, under President Boris Yeltsin, the Sakhalin 1 project had been signed with Russia, which was a production sharing agreement, and allowed for foreign ownership of oil in the ground. This was what the Texas oil men, including ExxonMobil were looking for.
Rex Tillerson went to Moscow in 2002 to try to deal. BP was also interested. The Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanted to sell part of Yukos to a western firm for cash. He had by then amassed an $8 billion fortune and donated a million dollars to the Library of Congress. But Khodorkovsky was coming into conflict with Putin. The Russian President was consolidating his power through bringing old KGB conservatives back into the government. They did not have a free market view of the world. Putin was not going to see Russia sold off to the Americans and British.
Khodorkovsky would only sell a quarter of the company. Perhaps that was as much as he could get by with, given Putin’s objections. This would not have interested ExxonMobil, however, whose executives wanted nothing except a controlling interest. Putin met Lee Raymond and disliked his rough and overbearing ways.
On October 25, 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested and charged with income tax evasion, forgery, theft, and other crimes. Putin was also threatened by his trying to buy allies in the Duma. This sort of thing would have been business as usual in the United States of America. The ExxonMobil deal with Russia fell through.
In Russia, companies were subordinate to the state. In the US, it was just the opposite. The state generally had to take orders from the corporations, the de-facto ruling class in America. It would have been difficult for Putin to have understood this.
For ExxonMobil, oil and gas were here to stay, at least up until 2030. They were realists about changing the world. They did not believe in the possibility of transforming other nations, the stuff of the neoconservatives naïve dreams in the Middle East, now lying in dust. Their business was to pump oil and bank the profits. They saw the world, to some extent like Chuck Hagel, now US Secretary of State.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
ExxonMobile’s vision of the future up until at least 2030, saw global energy demand growing by thirty-five percent. There is nothing in the cards that is going to prevent this. By 2005, the world’s 6.4 billion people consumed 245 million barrels of oil, equivalent energy, including natural gas, coal, hydropower, nuclear, biomass, wind, and solar sources. The global population is projected to reach eight billion by 2030 with an average three percent economic growth per year until then.
The poor countries of the world are going to burn more fossil fuels as they industrialize and use more autos. ExxonMobil saw no end in sight to the rise in demand for oil and gas. It was not going to be in the interests of governments to take the needed action to limit global warming.
In the last year of Lee Raymond’s leadership, the company made $36 billion dollars in profits. The value of shares was $360 billion dollars with $68 billion dollars paid out in dividends between 1993 and 2005. The company had 83,700 employees and 2.5 million share holders. When Lee Raymond retired, he was given a $400 million retirement package.
The company was heavily into politics. The ExxonMobil Political Action Committee distributed $700,000 to those politicians who voted their way every two years. But only five percent of this money was going to Democrats. It was eleven percent when Obama ran in 2008. It was simple. Under the Key Vote System, members of Congress were ranked according to the favorable votes they cast. There were no Democrats who ranked higher than fifty percent. So they got little or none of the money that went to the pro-business Republicans.
ExxonMobil also came into conflict with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and pulled out of the country for a second time. Chavez wanted more royalties for the oil for social spending, but ExxonMobil would not go back on its contracts, which largely stripped the host country of sovereignty over its own oil.
Problems in Nigeria involved the kidnapping of ex patriot workers and the theft of oil, assisted by the local navy.
In the United States, the company fought battles against the regulation of plastic toys and President Barack Obama’s threats to impose a windfall profits tax on the company.
The final chapters explore the most recent developments in the oil industry to extract more oil and gas from the earth. Particularly important are developments to extract oil from the tar sands in Canada, of which ExxonMobil is a major owner and producer. The other major development is producing rock gas from fracturing. These developments mean that the US will get more of its gas from domestic sources and more of its oil from Canada. These processes are severely environmentally damaging, but economic concerns trump concerns about the environment, as ever.
These recent developments have greatly increased the estimates of how much oil and gas is available outside of the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela. The down side is that greenhouse gas production is going to continue producing more global warming. The concept of peak oil becomes more elusive with these developments. There seems to be plenty of oil, gas, and coal for a number of decades into the future.
The lack of political will to reduce carbon emissions is bound to produce a heavy toll on the earth and society in future. The US is clearly behind the curve in enacting a carbon tax. Americans are not concerned with global warming, partly due to ExxonMobil propaganda. India and China will not reduce emissions as they use more energy, along with the other big emerging markets of the world. Iraqi oil production is increasing rapidly.
American corporations have great power in relation to the relative weak regulatory state in the US. Corporations have also gained power relative to workers and largely control American politics. ExxonMobil, a major part of the oil empire has been on a roll. There is no end in sight. The company has the American working class over a barrel. Somehow, this is called American freedom.
One is indebted for Coll for the information he brings to light about ExxonMobil. But in the end, he lets the company off the hook pretty easily. He sides with the company against Hugo Chavez’s efforts to help the poor in Venezuela. He shows how the company spends millions of dollars to fund phony research to create doubt and confusion. Yet he does not criticize the company for this. He does not go to the root of the issue in addressing the global capitalist system that is wreaking ecological disaster around the globe. And he presents the continuation of the present system in a rather optimistic light. Those are the weaknesses of the book.
To tell the truth is to be radical. And to be radical in the United States of America is deadly to one’s reputation. But if one is to a truly courageous writer, he or she has no choice. In the end, it must be said that Coll lets the reader down in this crucial aspect of social critique.
May 17, 2013