Saturday, June 02, 2012

Tintin Goes to Prince William Sound

Steve Coll begins Private Empire, his thick new history of Exxon, with an account of the calamitous wreck of the Exxon Valdez (23 years ago, can you believe?). It's classic Coll: dense and granular, smoothly written and all impelling the conclusion that the story isn't quite as simple as what you might have heard on CNN. Specifically the notorious Captain Hazelwood, universally cast as the villain of the piece--okay, Captain Hazelwood screwed up. But it takes more than one man to make a clusterslick of Valdezian proportions, and Captain Hazelwood's draw had the ill fortune to fill an inside straight. If anything can go wrong, as the saying goes, it will.

It's a gripping if somewhat demanding read, and it stands as a model for the book as a whole. The book, that is, offers a full panoply of what Coll does best: a dozen or so instances of first-rate long-form journalism, loosely bound together by a common subject: the world's third*  largest non-sovereign oil company.   "Common subject," then, is easy enough; "common theme" is perhaps a little harder and I am not sure I have grasped the unifying principle behind Coll's diverse episodes.   But in default of a better, you might want to choose "proven reserves"--the never-ending and ever-more-difficult to tell the world that they end each year with as much oil as they had at the beginning.

It's a loser's game for somebody someday and even now it requires a lot of smoke and mirrors, not to say Calvinball: Exxon dutifully reports one set of numbers, as instructed, in its filings with the SEC, and a different, more generous account for everyone else.  The difference is tar sands: the SEC doesn't think they are "oil," but apparently they look like oil to an oil company with an accounting problem.

Anyway, it is "proven reserves that drove Exxon into Chad, French Equatorial Africa, Aceh (made you blink!--it's on the northern tip of Sumatra) and the like.  All of which gives the book the flavor of a Boys' Own story until you recall these are real people whose lives are being disrupted, real people being killed or kidnapped, real dictatorial thugs being enlisted as allies in the search.  It also makes room for a remarkable door-closing farce, where an Enron lawyer, collaborating with a heroically acquiescent Federal judge, succeeds in snaffling $300 million out from the cotton-pickin' paws of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. 

All good stories, though in general, you'd need a strong motivation to see through Coll through every sidetrack and back alley.  The moral is there isn't any moral.  If Enron is to stay in business, it must keep up the search for new supply with the same devotion that your ordinary Congressman shows to his fund-raising.    Still, oddly enough, the book does end on a discontinuous note as Exxon discovers the magic of America's underground gas lode and embarks on a new adventure which just might turn it into an entirely different kind of energy company. For  moment the problem of reserves seems to be "solved," or at least kicked down the road.  For the moment the Exxon team can lighten up.  But only for a moment.  The fact remains that there is only so much of the stuff out there, and someday some Exxon CEO is going to have to throw down his cards and say "that's it I'm done."
*BP and PetroChina Co. Ltd. pip Exxon.  Also  thirteen sovereign companies.

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