Khalid on Coll, “The World According to Exxon Mobil”

Steve Coll visited the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law on Friday, November 7, 2017, to deliver the seminar’s keynote titled “The World According to Exxon Mobil.” Coll currently serves as the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as well as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Coll has also written seven books including Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power, and has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Coll began his talk with a discussion of the history and culture of Exxon Mobil. Noting that Exxon Mobil has had more impact in many countries than the United States Department of State, Coll endeavored to briefly explain what has brought Exxon Mobil to its current position as a corporate giant. Starting at the beginning of Exxon Mobil’s corporate history, Coll described how as a descendent of Standard Oil, Exxon retained much of the culture of its parent in maintaining a conservative corporate culture, retaining life-long employees through the highest levels of management, and perpetuating an isolationist mentality internally.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill is an area of particular interest for Coll, as he stated that it was when he was visiting the site of the spill that he realized “this was where I had to start the story of Exxon Mobil.” Coll explained how Exxon restructured many facets of its corporate organization following the spill, focusing more intensely on oil and gas exclusively while implementing a zero tolerance policy with regard to engineering and safety.

Following Exxon’s merger with Mobil, Coll noted that the newly structured corporation began facing increasing challenges to keep reserves high to match production levels. Coll explained how in the era of “resource nationalism,” wherein Middle Eastern states ended their partnerships with foreign oil companies, Exxon Mobil was forced to begin operations in poorer states which could not meet production demands without the help of foreign oil corporations. While this strategy was effective, it produced a number of controversial elements as Exxon Mobil began extending its influence and responsibility in a number of volatile situations in states including Nigeria and Indonesia. Eventually however, Exxon Mobil went on to implement human rights standards as fiercely as it perpetuated its own zero tolerance safety policy internally.

In the second half of the keynote, Steve Coll shifted his focus from the history of Exxon Mobil to a discussion of how the corporation has leveraged its massive influence to shape contemporary political forces. Coll discussed how former CEO and Chairman of Exxon Mobil Lee Raymond remained deeply skeptical towards climate change science, and even funded non-scientific politicized communications campaigns to cast doubts on emerging climate change science. Coll also noted how it was partly due to the differences in Rex Tillerson’s leadership and communication style that resulted in him succeeding Raymond as CEO.

With regard to Rex Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State, Coll remarked that he was highly surprised when hearing the first rumors of the appointment. Although Coll acknowledged that Tillerson certainly possesses the skills necessary for the role, he found Tillerson an unlikely choice given Exxon Mobil’s history of often standing apart from the State Department, even going against State Department advice when doing so was good for Exxon Mobil stockholders.

At the end of the keynote Steve Coll turned his focus to the future of Exxon Mobil and the energy industry as a whole. Coll noted that although Exxon Mobil has predicted that renewable forms of energy will retain only minor gains in market share in projections up to the year 2040, these projections themselves are becoming less reliable given the unpredictable nature of disruptive technologies involving electric vehicles. In concluding the keynote, Coll noted that now for the first time since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Exxon Mobil faces a new existential crisis in the form of emerging energy trends shifting away from oil and gas. Undoubtedly, Steve Coll provided the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law an intriguing look into one of the most powerful corporations in the world, and how growing corporate power continues to challenge traditional notions of state sovereignty.

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