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ExxonMobil: A 'Private Empire' On The World Stage

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In Private Empire, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Steve Coll investigates how ExxonMobil has used its money and power to wield significant influence in Washington, D.C., particularly during the Bush administration.

Executives at the company maintained close personal connections with members of the Bush administration — but Coll says the "cliched idea that Exxon-Mobil was just an instrument of the Bush administration's foreign policy — a kind of extension of the American government during the Bush years — is just wrong."

Coll has written extensively about Afghanistan and Pakistan and the uses of government power. But in Private Empire, he turns his attention to ExxonMobil, one of the largest private corporations in the United States.

Exxon, which merged with Mobil in 1999, descends from John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co. and has ranked as one of the country's most profitable companies for the past 60 years. Each year ExxonMobil makes about $450 billion in revenue, exceeding the great majority of countries.

Coll says ExxonMobil executives "see themselves — ExxonMobil — as an independent sovereign with their own foreign policy," he says. "Sometimes their interests ally with the United States government, sometimes they find themselves in opposition to the United States — and sometimes they try to stay out of the way."

ExxonMobil And Climate Change

Until 2005, ExxonMobil was run by Lee "Iron Ass" Raymond, a close friend of Vice President Dick Cheney and a skeptic of climate change. During Raymond's tenure, Exxon funded campaigns to challenge the validity of emerging science about climate change — specifically the findings that a global warming trend existed.

"This not only borrowed from some of the tactics that the tobacco industry had used to delay public understanding of the dangers of smoking; in some cases there were even overlaps of individuals and groups that were engaged in this communications campaign," Coll tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "A lot of corporate America opposed the Kyoto Accords. But only a small set of companies did what Exxon did, which was to really go after the science as aggressively as they did."

Coll says the campaign helped manufacture confusion and perpetual controversy about climate change.

"It created an impression in the media and the public that there was a raging, deep controversy among scientists, and there wasn't a controversy, at least after 2002, when the doubts fell away in the face of evidence," he says. "It was the evidence and the modeling and the very science that ExxonMobil was calling into doubt that gradually became more and more alarming and attracted more and more support within the scientific community."

But as the company attacked global warming publicly, Coll says, geologists working within ExxonMobil were examining how a warmer Earth — resulting from global warming — could create new business opportunities for ExxonMobil.

"One of the big deals that ExxonMobil has announced in the past year involves access to the Russian Arctic, where it is partnered with a Russian firm to access many billions of dollars worth of reserves involving big investments ExxonMobil would make north of the Arctic Circle," he says. "Why is that oil accessible? It's because sea ice is melting in the Arctic. Global warming may, in fact, unlock enormous opportunities for oil companies."

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