On Tuesday, November 7, 2017 the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law at Duke University welcomed Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker Journalist and Dean of the Columbia Journalism School Steve Coll to give the seminar’s keynote lecture. More than 150 people filled the lecture hall in Rubenstein Library to hear Coll speak on the history of ExxonMobil, the world according to ExxonMobil, and how imaginations of independence and sovereignty drive corporate decision making and interactions with sovereign states at home and abroad. After giving his main talk, Coll took questions from the audience for about 20 minutes. A short reception followed the talk.
It was easy to spot the audience members who came having read Coll’s 2013 book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American power; they were the ones quietly nodding in agreement as Coll spent the first thirty minutes or so recapping some of the more iconic scenes from his book: the 1989 oil spill at Valdez, Lee Raymond’s implementation of a “zero tolerance” culture within Exxon, the merger between Exxon and Mobil, ExxonMobil’s quest to solve the break-even problem with oil reserves in the aftermath of mass-nationalization in the wake of mid-century decolonization, and Lee’s infamous and highly-personal campaign to cast doubt on climate science. In retelling the brief history of ExxonMobil under the leadership of Lee Raymond and his successor—the boy-scout influenced, career insider—Rex Tillerson, Coll painted a picture of ExxonMobil’s corporate personality as one marked by a sense of independence and isolation, faith in technocracy, and adherence to neoliberal principles such as shareholder and profit maximization. As the largest privately-owned oil corporation in the world, by the end of the twentieth century ExxonMobil did not rely so much on influencing United States energy and foreign policy in order to exercise power in the international arena as it conducted its own. In the world according to ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson could upset U.S. diplomatic strategy or counter U.S. interests by striking a deal with a sovereign state in the middle of conflict-ridden regions and simply defend its actions to the State Department after the fact on the basis of maximizing shareholder value.
In what many surely found to be the most interesting (and new) segment of the discussion, Coll speculated on the future of ExxonMobil in a world marked by rapid advances in transportation technology. How will a future belonging to automated Ubers, hyperloops, and privately-owned Tesla’s change the oil company’s preponderant profits and power? What will happen when public interest in moving toward renewable energy sources conflicts with ExxonMobil’s private interests in growth? When Lee Raymond had decided to focus Exxon’s business operations in gas and oil in the aftermath of the Valdez spill, the idea that consumer demand for gasoline could drop in the near or distant future had seemed counterintuitive. According to Coll, even today ExxonMobil denies that significant changes impacting the fossil fuel industry could be on the horizon. How might possible retractions in operations affect ExxonMobil’s sense of itself and relationship to state power in a world that ExxonMobil no longer recognizes?
The Question and Answer session offered audience members an opportunity to pick Coll’s brain on a number of topics, from ExxonMobil’s operations in and relations with sovereign states like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, to comparing ExxonMobil’s corporate power with non-territorially-dependent companies such as Google and Facebook. It is not accurate to say that states no longer matter in the age of globalization and information; however, the relative power of nonstate actors, especially gigantic corporation, does mean that territorial states will have to figure out new political and legal strategies for managing global relations. According to Coll, a movement to reassert state power is already beginning to show. When combined with advances in electric automobiles, the reassertion of state power may not bode well for ExxonMobil’s future. It certainly is a world apart from the world according to ExxonMobil. As far as Rex Tillerson’s move from corporate CEO to Trump’s administration, Coll predicts that Tillerson’s legacy will not have so much to do with his potential conflicts of interest or relationship to ExxonMobil as with his efforts to reduce and reorganize the Department of State.
Earlier in the afternoon, Coll sat down with Duke graduate and professional students for an informal Q&A. Moderating the session was Philip Stern, Professor of History and co-director for the Mellon Sawyer Seminar. The discussion covered a range of topics, spanning Coll’s writing methods and style to how journalism as a profession is (or is not, as the case may be) adapting to the new information environment marked by mass leaks.