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"Private Empire" by Steve Coll


Crude. Oil that is. Black gold. Texas tea. Politics. Lobbying. Old boys. Influence.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll.

It may shock the gentle reader to learn that petroleum is power. Well, maybe not. Look around — at the street, at houses and businesses. Without oil we'd stop, and maybe freeze (but we'd have light, since oil is rarely used for electricity generation).

Gasoline Station, Tenth Avenue and 29th Street, Manhattan., Digital ID 482728, New York Public LibraryAuthor Steve Coll's book is more concerned with other types of power. Political power, though in Coll's portrayal it seems admirable that ExxonMobil rarely is seen trying to influence politics except where there is a direct tie to its business. Corporate power, including the dynamics of succession to an almost imperial CEO position, mind-bogglingly large corporate acquisitions (remember Mobil Oil as a separate company?) and the corporate mindset of managers and employees that balances groupthink with business innovation and success.

26 Broadway - Morris Street,Standard Oil Building, Digital ID 1558432, New York Public LibraryAs befits a global corporation, the action here takes place not just in Texas and Washington D.C. (and Alaska, lest we forget the Exxon Valdez), but in Africa — Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Nigeria — and in Asia — Aceh in Indonesia. Plus some side trips to Salkalin Island in Russia and to Iraq. But no matter where or when, all of ExxonMobil's activities remain tightly structured and controlled.

Overall, Private Empire is a dynamic and forceful, magnificently well researched and written tale. A worthy contender indeed for NYPL's Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism for 2013.


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