Book Review: Private Empire by Steve Coll

Before I give a few thoughts on Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, I want to share the merits of the investigative book’s author, Steve Coll. Mr. Coll is a two time Pulitzer-Prize winning author so I had high expectations for his writing. Private Empire certainly fulfilled my initial bias. With experience writing and leading The Washington Post and the New Yorker, Coll’s narrative about ExxonMobil’s obscene power is both entertaining and informative.

The book is coincidentally released in conjunction with Fortune 500′s 2012 list of largest corporations in America. And who was #1? You guessed it: ExxonMobil. It beat out Wal-Mart. The oil giant achieved $452 billion dollars in revenue in 2011, which is a 27.7% increase from 2010. Part of their surging revenue is due to the company’s increase in fracking, the other is contributed by the rising oil prices.

The first chapter opens with a climactic illustration of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. Coll sews Exxon’s corporate expansion into the storyline, which follows the ill-fated oil tanker’s captain. When the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, found oil spilling from the tanker that he had left to his third mate, “he knew that ‘the world as i’d known it had come to an end.’” That was certainly an exciting opening to the book.

I love that the author has extensive quotes from people involved in Exxon. It makes the book read much more like a story than an informational piece. Coll’s language helps put you in the position both as an insider of ExxonMobil, which wants you to sympathize with its corporate agenda, and as an outsider who despises the unfair influence the company has on America and the rest of the word. Throughout reading the book, I found myself Googling images and searching for additional details of some of the unbelievable injustices Coll accuses ExxonMobil of conducting.

In a latter chapter, Coll connects the role ExxonMobil played in the 2008 presidential campaign. Coll claims that Obama criticized ExxonMobil in order to appeal to the average American, who looked down upon the money-hoarding company. However, while Obama spoke about American energy independence, Coll notes that Obama didn’t think it was actually possible nor to the best interest of the country. It will be interesting to see how oil plays into the 2012 elections.

Private Empire is a relevant read. It’s dense, but has enough controversy and shocking facts to be keep you turning the pages.

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