Steve Coll is the author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. From the transcript of his December 2016 Q&A with Fresh Air's Dave Davies:
DAVIES: You know, you write that an oil company needs stability in the places it operates. It - drilling wells is expensive. It takes decades to get the return from them, so they want places that will be stable. So they have to - so Exxon has dealt with a lot of authoritarian regimes, some of which, you know, are ruled by dictators who enrich themselves. What's [Exxon CEO Rex] Tillerson's record when it comes to dealing with those kinds of governments?--Marshal Zeringue
COLL: Well, he's been successful at making arrangements with authoritarian governments in many places in the world, certainly in Vladimir Putin's Russia, in West Africa, in Equatorial Guinea, in Chad and in other places across the Middle East. In Qatar, they have a strong presence, and elsewhere in the Gulf states, ExxonMobil's very active. You know, they also operate in more raucous environments.
But, generally, they've had better success economic and business success in environments that are stable because of authoritarian government than in a place like Alaska where Tillerson has repeatedly expressed frustration that ExxonMobil can't get stable terms to the deals it wants to make because the government keeps changing. Well, that's because we have elections in Alaska, and politics of oil up there are pretty - you know, pretty raucous. So I'm not saying that that means he's anti-democratic, but I am just saying he's been conditioned by experience to work productively and without a lot of criticism or interference in politically authoritarian environments.
DAVIES: You know, there are a lot of decisions that companies that work in - with authoritarian regimes have to make. And it's one thing to say, well, we're not going to, you know, seek the overthrow of an authoritarian regime. But there are other decisions you can make. You can participate in bribing officials or facilitating, you know, the extraction of large amounts of assets for the - for royal families. Do you have any sense of how Exxon and Tillerson's - any sense of their record in terms of the extent to which they violate things like the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act? And what's their...
COLL: They're - they're...
DAVIES: ...What's their record of integrity in that area?
COLL: Well, we talked before about their rulemaking and their adherence to rules. And I do think that they use the law as a - as an organizing principle everywhere. And they're very - very devoted to trying to figure out how not to get outside of the law and also to promote the rule of law internationally because that aids their business model in the sense that it makes contracts enforceable. And it also gives them a way to avoid the kinds of dilemmas that are presented when dictators' relatives come around looking for contracts or for favors. ExxonMobil can say, hey, we follow the law everywhere. This is not legal. We're not going to do it. And so it's a way to be consistent. You know, where it gets more subtle is outside of the direct corruption of enabling capital flight or taking payoffs or making payoffs.
You know, what do you do in these societies while you're there to promote better humanitarian conditions, better governance? Are you willing to...[read on]