ExxonMobil Private Empire

The Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law welcomed keynote speaker, Steve Coll to Duke for a talk on “The World According to ExxonMobil.” Coll is Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism at Columbia University’s Journalism School, staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of the book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. His talk focused on the culture and ethos of Exxon, Exxon’s role in foreign affairs, and a discussion of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his shift from Exxon CEO to the Trump Administration.

Coll began by describing the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 as a pivot point for Exxon. The spill occurred when an oil tanker struck the Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the sound. The effects of the spill were catastrophic for the environment and diverse wildlife populations in Prince William Sound. According to Coll, the spill had been the result of a series of strains on regulatory framework, overwork, under-regulation, and falling oil prices. In the aftermath of the spill, a new CEO took leadership of the company – Lee Raymond. Coll described Raymond as blunt, sometimes frightening, brilliant, and a man of strong convictions. Raymond sought to end Exxon’s market diversification and to instead focus solely on oil and gas. Under his leadership, Exxon was driven by data analysis, metrics, and systems that could be replicated globally. Raymond also implemented a series of safety protocols, and made personal safety a part of Exxon’s identity and ethos.

Lee Raymond in many ways maintained Exxon’s culture, and further ingrained it. Coll describes Exxon as the Standard Oil descendant that stayed closest to Rockefeller’s principles. As Coll describes it, Exxon is quite closed, informed by religion, and maintains a culture of business competition, success, competitiveness, conservativism, and stability. It is a company to which employees come early in their careers, work their way up, and ever leave. Rex Tillerson was no exception.

Tillerson grew up in Texas, went to University of Texas, studied civil engineering, and went straight to Exxon after graduating from college. Coll describes him as a conventional, Texas establishment Republican. He succeeded Lee Raymond, but his management style was quite distinct from Raymond’s. His rise through the corporation was closely tied to Russia, where his signature assignments were focused. Exxon was the only large oil company that survived the dissolution of the USSR, and its ties in Russia deepened under Putin. For example, in 2012, Tillerson met with Putin to sign a framework agreement to develop oil in the Russian arctic. In Coll’s view, Tillerson has a breadth of experience navigating foreign actors, but that has not done much to ease his transition to the public sector.

One of the most interesting points in Coll’s talk was his description of the sharp cultural differences between Exxon and the State Department. Exxon purposefully stands apart from the U.S. Government and its foreign policy, and has never held the State Department in high regard. According to Coll, there is a longstanding relationship of skepticism and distaste for the U.S. government’s diplomacy. Exxon saw itself as an independent actor on the world stage in the post-Cold War era. It was the largest privately-owned oil and gas company, with presence throughout the world, but it made clear that it was not a U.S. company for the purpose of foreign policy alignment. Exxon worked closely with authoritarian regimes throughout the world, and approached its relationships with dictators with the goal of furthering its own interests – extracting oil and maximizing benefit to its shareholders. In his talk, Coll spoke about Exxon as an example of the notable growth in relative power of non-state actors, and the decline of the relative power of the state. He drew a connection between the decline of state power and the rise of authoritarianism, arguing that authoritarianism is states’ reaction to the loss of power, and their attempt to reclaim it. His description of Exxon’s exertion of power as a private empire in the global order drew attention to one of the overarching themes of the seminar: the ‘business of empire.’ Coll’s keynote speech was insightful, interesting, and engaging, and his visit to Duke was a highlight of the Mellon Sawyer seminar series.


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