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Journalist Steve Coll discusses Exxon Mobil conundrum

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll spoke about corporate responsibility Monday at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll spoke about corporate responsibility Monday at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

The American conversation on corporate responsibility is much less mature than it is in many other industrialized countries, due in part to the sovereignty of corporations like Exxon Mobil, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll said.

Coll delivered the Ewing Lecture on Ethics in Journalism Monday evening at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He discussed his newest book, “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” published May 2012.

“We are in a very early state of figuring out what it is we want from corporations and why, as social, political and democratic actors,” Coll said. “Exxon Mobil understands that they’re in a permissive environment—they have a great deal of confidence in their ability to manage in that environment.”

Coll developed the theme of his book after realizing that Exxon Mobil operates distinctively from other oil companies in Europe and the Americas. Almost every other major industrialized country has a large, state-owned oil company that is closely tied to its sovereign government, Coll said. Exxon Mobil is largest American oil company, but essentially operates in opposition to the government.

Their annual revenue of $450 billion gives them great power as an agent of economic activity, but Coll also said he became engrossed by Exxon Mobil’s corporate philosophy. Although headquartered in Texas, top officials do not see the company as fundamentally American. As a multinational corporation, it operates under many schemes of international law, bases its long-term views on its own interests rather than U.S. interests and is skilled in risk management while operating in dangerous and unpredictable environments.

Coll noted that the majority of the company’s employees are not American and that it drills for oil around the world, with a quarter of its products coming from West Africa.

“[ExxonMobil] looks a little bit like a state except it’s spread out on the map not in a continuous way,” Coll said, “One of the things that surprised me when I started interviewing and reporting was to find right away that that’s how they see themselves.”

This autonomy has also given the company tremendous influence over energy policy—perhaps more than the U.S. government, he added. Government energy policy is in a constant state of flux due to frequent partisan administrative changes in Washington, D.C. In contrast, the preferences and ideals of ExxonMobil are well established and constant: They seek to profit. ExxonMobil almost unwaveringly adheres to its own policies, Coll noted. The corporation has infrequently had to concede to pressures by groups concerned with human rights violations and the environmental impacts of oil drilling. When originally approached by activists to uphold standards for corporate conduct, Exxon Mobil characteristically said no, instead choosing to employ its own auditors to prevent human rights violations, Coll said. After 11 years, the oil giant agreed to sign on to a multi-corporation human rights standard. Although Rex Tillerson, chairman, president and CEO, has said fears about climate change and the environmental impact of drilling are overblown, he supported a tax on carbon emissions in 2009.

Coll was introduced by Phil Bennett, Eugene C. Patterson professor of the practice of journalism and public policy. The two previously worked together at The Washington Post, where Coll was managing editor from 1998 to 2004. Coll is currently a staff writer at The New Yorker and president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.

“Steve has a unique talent for the narration of histories, of deconstructing complex systems and digging up truth that, in the case of Exxon Mobil, was literally underground,” said Bennett, a member of the board of directors of the Duke Student Publishing Company, which publishes The Chronicle. “He’s inspired people with his infectious sense of journalism’s higher purpose—the idea that if you can’t move the world, with the right tools, you can at least see it more clearly.”

Coll’s speech helped clarify the complex nature of Exxon Mobil, said Tom Nicholson, a first-year master’s candidate in international development policy. Coll clearly explained how their internal strategy of avoiding mistakes that lead to the Exxon Valdez oil spill are colliding with their long-term strategy of going to riskier places.

“He’s got a really measured way of looking at pretty overwhelmingly complex things [and making them understandable] to your average reader,” Nicholson noted.


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