In the great reach for colonies that Europe began hundreds of years ago, at center stage were several curious entities that wielded more power than many governments. The United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies (commonly known as the East India Company) and its counterpart, the Dutch East India Company, fielded their own warships and armies, coined money and ruled territory eventually taken over by Britain and the Netherlands. Later, the seizure of land by Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company also preceded the spread of British pink across the map.
Centuries from now, historians sweltering away on an overheated planet and looking back to our own times will surely see multinational oil companies as similar players. The way they’re reshaping today’s world, however, is not by carving out future colonies, but by searching for the oil and gas we’re so hungry for in ever more risky places: beneath oceans, in Canadian tar sands, in underground rock formations that require “fracking” and in the environmentally fragile Arctic waters newly accessible as the polar ice cap shrinks — thanks, of course, to our addiction to fossil fuels. That addiction is likely to change the very level of the seas the East India Company’s ships sailed in their hunt for cloth and spices, and the floods and droughts ahead may set in motion desperate migrations dwarfing those of colonial times.
Steve Coll’s mammoth portrait of Exxon Mobil, “Private Empire,” abounds in empire-size figures. In the first half of last year alone, the company’s profits were $21.3 billion. When the chief executive Lee Raymond stepped down a few years ago, his retirement package was worth $398 million. If revenue were counted as gross domestic product, the corporation would rank among the top 30 countries. Unsurprisingly, Exxon Mobil runs one of Washington’s biggest lobbying operations, with not only a well-staffed office on K Street (where a Democratic director was smoothly brought in to replace a Republican after the 2008 elections) but some 20 additional former senators, representatives, legislative aides and others under contract.
史蒂夫·科尔(Steve Coll) 在描绘埃克森美孚公司(Exxon Mobil)的宏篇画卷《私人帝国》(Private Empire)中，引用了大量数据。公司仅在去年上半年的盈利就达到213亿美元。几年前首席执行官李·雷蒙德(Lee Raymond)离职的时候，公司给他的退休方案价值3.98亿美元。如果把年收入当作国民生产总值，这家公司可以排进世界前30位。这样的公司自然在华盛顿进行着最大规模的游说活动，不但在K街设有规模不小的办事处（那里的主管原为共和党人，2008年大选后顺利地换成民主党人），还聘着20来个工作人员，当中包括前参议员、众议员、法律助理等。
Yet this book isn’t so much a story of Exxon Mobil’s influence over the American government. Rather, it’s a picture of a corporation so large and powerful — operating in some 200 nations and territories — that it really has its own foreign policy.
Coll quotes a 1999 cable from the United States Embassy in Chad noting that Exxon was ignoring American diplomats there. He then asks: “And why should it be otherwise? Exxon Mobil’s investments in the Chad-Cameroon oil project would amount to $4.2 billion. Annual aid to Chad from the United States was only about $3 million.”
Exxon Mobil’s foreign policy, orchestrated by a political division including National Security Council and State Department alumni, sometimes coincides with that of the United States, and sometimes diverges. For example, the corporation had no enthusiasm for invading Iraq. Yes, Iraq has all that oil, but with most remaining reserves ever harder to get at, oil executives knew that whoever ran Iraq would ultimately depend on the technology and capital of the Exxon Mobils of the world. And yes, it might have been nice to own Iraqi oil wells outright, but long-term stability and security mattered more. Today, although the company has billions invested in tearing up wetlands and forests to extract oil from Alberta’s tar sands, it doesn’t much care whether an expanded pipeline system that would stretch from Canada to the Gulf Coast gets the go-ahead from the Obama administration. If Exxon Mobil can’t send that oil to the United States, it can easily sell it to Japan or China.
Just like the British South Africa Company, which pioneered the use of Hiram Maxim’s machine gun during the Matabele War, Exxon Mobil has its own armies — and, in these days of outsourcing, also hires those of others. In Chad, its 2,500 security men patrolled the countryside in white radio-equipped S.U.V.’s, watching for guerrillas as the company set up an intelligence operation bigger and better than the local C.I.A. station. In the war-racked Niger Delta, it gave boats to the Nigerian Navy, deployed its own vessels at sea to scout for pirates and “recruited, paid, supplied and managed sections of the Nigerian military and police.” On their uniforms, the Nigerian police sported Mobil’s familiar red flying horse. In Aceh, Indonesia, Mobil paid the salaries of Indonesian counterinsurgency forces who tortured and murdered prisoners on company property. Payments kept flowing even after the American government cut off aid to the Indonesian military because of such abuses.
Like other journalists before him, Coll points out that Exxon Mobil’s lobbying has not been confined to keeping oil and gas taxes low and regulations lax. It has also shaped what people think on the biggest issue of our time. For some years, the company claimed that human contributions to global warming were negligible and gave millions of dollars to organizations that churned out studies accordingly. In the last few years, the corporation has subtly, gradually pulled its head out of the sand on this issue, not admitting earlier errors but simply stressing that the world’s economies still demand huge amounts of oil and gas — which is, alas, true.
Exxon Mobil executives care less about Americans’ belief in climate change, Coll suggests, than they do about Americans’ belief in punitive damages from lawsuits. After the next Exxon Valdez spill, or the next Jacksonville spill (in which an Exxon service station leaked 24,000 gallons of gasoline into a Maryland community’s water supply), what a jury decides could subtract billions from the bottom line. Small wonder that after the Valdez, a company representative quietly called a University of Wisconsin professor to offer money if he would write an article for a “respectable academic journal,” arguing against punitive damages. This man spoke up, but we don’t know how many other scholars received and may have acted on the same offer and said nothing.
“Private Empire” is not as original and absorbing as Coll’s excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ghost Wars,” about the C.I.A.’s arrogant bungling in pre-2001 Afghanistan. Oil company executives trained and shielded by public relations staffers are inherently bland compared with the earlier volume’s C.I.A. cowboys and Afghan sheiks. Long a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post and now a staff writer for The New Yorker, Coll is a careful reporter but sometimes doesn’t know when to stop. “Private Empire” could easily afford to shed 150 of its nearly 700 pages. Do we really need to know where all the major Exxon Mobil figures grew up and went to college? Or do we really need half a page listing all the names and amounts involved when over a dozen executives gave to the campaign of an oil-friendly Texas congressman?
Despite these quibbles, the book assuredly does what it sets out to do: show the inner workings of one of the Western world’s most significant concentrations of unelected power. And just how that power is wielded matters enormously because oil companies play such a crucial role in the carbon economy to which we are so fatefully attached.