Book Review — Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll

'Tosin Adeoti
4 min readSep 26, 2023

In the realm of the oil industry, a stark divide often exists between the popular image of companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell and the intricate realities they navigate. This division is frequently painted with broad strokes, where oil giants are either cast as nefarious villains, horned devils feasting on innocence, or as ordinary individuals like Fatima and Amaka grappling with the complex challenges of an unforgiving industry. Steve Coll’s “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” published in 2013, offers a refreshing perspective, peeling back the layers of this oil-stained canvas.

Coll, a writer for The New Yorker, embarks on a profound exploration into the inner workings of ExxonMobil, a multinational behemoth that, depending on the measure, could be considered the titan of them all, the most iconic oil and gas heavyweight after the famed Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. What distinguishes this book is not only the extensive research that underpins it but also the balanced portrayal of an industry often cloaked in controversy. It took me nearly two months to complete this 700-page pile, not solely because of its length but due to the rabbit holes it compelled me to delve into as I looked deeper into its narratives.

The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of Exxon’s leadership transitions, with Lawrence G. Rawl, Lee R. Raymond, and Rex Tillerson at the helm during various periods. However, the heart of the book pulsates to the rhythm of Raymond’s reign, where the pages unfurl into a captivating exploration of corporate power and influence.

One might anticipate that this exposé would cast Exxon in a negative light, but Coll’s meticulous account, although Exxon may not approve of the entire narration, introduces us to both facets of the story. He peels back the layers to reveal corporate discipline, an intricate dance around science (particularly climate science), and a surprising commitment to rules, even though Exxon has a penchant for setting its own, contrasting sharply with the public perception of big oil companies as intrinsically totally corrupt.

The narrative weaves through an array of topics, encompassing business decisions, safety, environment, climate change, and politics. Yet, it is the portrayal of life in African nations like Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Nigeria, and Indonesia that tugs at the heartstrings. Blaming profit-driven corporations for the struggles of these nations may be the easy path, but Coll shines a light on a more intricate truth. When companies like Exxon operate within the confines of a corrupt system, it blurs the lines of culpability. They justifiably face repercussions at times, but as the reader will see, Exxon regards itself, first and foremost, as a nation unto itself, concerned primarily with its interests. In many instances, when operating abroad, Exxon prioritizes its interests over those of the United States, where it is headquartered. As the Bush administration conveyed to the Kremlin, “We can’t tell these guys what to do.”

Exxon’s overseas operations in Indonesia, Nigeria, and Venezuela come into focus, showcasing their approach to maintaining stability amidst political turmoil. They adopt a hands-off stance on social issues and local politics, a pragmatic strategy that often draws criticism from human rights groups and generates negative PR. The story of how Exxon and the World Bank failed in their program to turn Chad into a model country is particularly poignant.

However, it’s not just Exxon’s practices that raise eyebrows; it’s their intricate dance with the U.S. government. Coll peels back the curtain to reveal Exxon’s extensive lobbying efforts, ranking third in the nation in lobbyist spending. The company wields significant influence, nudging Congress and the President to align with their energy policies. It’s a dance that reveals the murky depths of corporate-government relationships, where ideals of democracy and human rights often yield to financial interests. It was surprising to witness Barack Obama fervently campaigning against Exxon in 2008, only to falter in disentangling them during his tenure at the White House. Politicians, it seems, are in the business of riding the wave of public sentiments.

As you immerse yourself in the pages of “Private Empire,” you’ll encounter a meticulously researched account of ExxonMobil’s evolution in recent decades. While the book may be somewhat long-winded, it’s a treasure trove for those seeking to fathom the intricacies of the oil and gas industry and the enigmatic force that is Exxon Mobil. If you’re prepared for a deep dive into the realms of energy, politics, and corporate might, this book serves as your ticket to enlightenment.