Hot Reads for Summer 2012: Power Brokers

Two new books tackle the energy crisis from very different angles

May 9, 2012
Outside Magazine

WHEN SUMMER hits and gas prices shoot up along with the temperature and we all wonder why, books about oil become required reading. Steve Coll’s sprawling, Tolstoyan Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Penguin Press, $36), begins with one oil spill, the Valdez, and ends with another one 21 years later, Deepwater Horizon. In between, there is everything else: the fall of the Soviet Union, the long reign of Exxon CEO Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, the company’s campaign against climate science, small wars in Indonesia and Nigeria, dodgy deals in Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and Russia, the invasion of Iraq, Exxon’s use of SEC-defying accounting, its record profits, its billion-dollar political donations, its embrace of tar sands, its embrace of fracking, and, always, its unyielding dedication to the “Exxon way.” Its way, that is, or the highway. There is no reason a 600-page book about an oil company should be this gripping, but it is. Coll and his researchers interviewed more than 450 people; he traveled to Alaska, the Sahel, the Niger Delta, and the Middle East; the pace never relents. “We need to face some facts,” says Lou Noto of Mobil, a company eventually swallowed by a hungry Exxon, in what will serve as Private Empire’s guiding passage. “The world has changed. The easy things are behind us. The easy oil, the easy cost savings—they’re done.” Everything here flows, or doesn’t, from that. 

If Exxon once famously denied climate change, its rival Royal Dutch Shell has embraced it: since 2005, Shell has spent $3.5 billion in an attempt to tap northernmost Alaska’s melting Beaufort and Chukchi seas. This is the subject of Outside contributor Bob Reiss’s The Eskimo and the Oil Man: The Battle at the Top of the World for America’s Future (Business Plus, $28), which focuses on the Inupiat mayor of the North Slope Borough and the Shell executive sent to win him over. The book is well timed—drilling may finally begin this summer—but is quieter than Coll’s. Reiss shows the most outrage not over the collapsing Arctic environment, not over the resource curse that Coll describes so well. What he’s angriest about, after watching Shell’s man and the mayor reach a pro-exploration détente, is governmental red tape. If drilling is inevitable in the Alaskan Arctic, we may as well streamline it. This makes his book one about process, while Private Empire is about power. In the end, Reiss writes, what makes America great is compromise. The story of Exxon—whatever one thinks about the corporation itself—suggests the opposite.