Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll - Book Review

Steve Coll's highly readable corporate biography of Exxon Mobil, the most profitable American corporation in history, opens with the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 and ends with BP's blowout in the Gulf of Mexico aboard the Deepwater Horizon on April 19, 2010. During these twenty-one years in the long and complicated history of a great American industrial enterprise, everything changed and nothing did. Throughout much of its history the Standard Oil Company, founded by John D. Rockerfeller in the late nineteenth century and broken up by trust busters and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911, and its successor companies have been able to keep a business perspective that reaches to the future forty, fifty, or more years away. This permits the reunited ExxonMobil Corporation (Standard Oil of New Jersey) and Mobil Oil (Standard Oil of New York) to nurture itself, usually without regard to the good of the country in which it developed or the ones in which it operates. Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power is the story of this giant enterprise's response to the difficulties posed by the last decade of the twentieth century and first of the twenty-first as it faced the changes in business, international, and global environments. Steve Coll's Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power is published by Penguin Press (2012). It is 685 pages long and retails for $36.00.

Some might find the length of this book to be daunting, but the oil industry is complex in every aspect, requiring detail to explain and numerous examples to understand. Coll provides these extensively. In order to come to help the reader understand this complexity, he makes clear that profits and continuing success in the oil industry require “booked proven reserves.” This means that oil companies are always in search of new sources of petroleum to assure their balance sheets never reflect the growing difficulty of finding oil. Since nearly all the easy to acquire oil has been found and partially depleted, it has become increasingly likely that new reserves will be found in unstable countries in the developing world or in high risk places under the sea or in the arctic. Each of these locales creates higher risk. High risk means expending more resources to acquire and develop the new sites. Thus, oil companies must improve their technological ability along with their corporate approach to dealing with the people and situations in these regions. The book details the risks and costs of doing business in this increasingly difficult environment.

Most Americans encounter oil companies at their local filling stations and understand them only as the company which increases their cost of living by charging exorbitant prices for a commodity to which we are, sadly, addicted. The familiar Exxon and Mobil gas stations, few of which are company owned but all of which are carefully controlled, are our most frequent contact. These stations are, however, the end of a large “downstream” business beginning at the refinery. American Empire, however, deals more extensively with the “upstream” end of the oil business, finding the petroleum, pumping it, and getting it to the refinery. Unfortunately, much of the un-exploited petroleum reserves are found in difficult environments ruled by autocratic dictators or wily, untrustworthy potential partners. Coll presents extensive case studies of ExxonMobil's efforts to extract oil in Aceh province Indonesia, the republics of Chad, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea in West Africa, Venezuela in Latin American, and war torn Iraq in the middle east, as well as extensive efforts to gain control of reserves in an emerging Russia.

Each of these places presents different and difficult geological and geopolitical challenges requiring deep knowledge of local culture and extensive technological expertise. While ExxonMobil is deeply imbued with the latter, it does not see the former as part of its portfolio, because, as the company says, nation building is not part of its “core business.” During the period covered by this book, ExxonMobil was under the leadership of Lee Raymond and then Rex Tillerson. Both are Texas born and trained engineers of high intelligence and a perspective limited to effectively running an oil business. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Raymond obsessively (and intelligently) built a system designed to assure that safety was one of the highest priorities of the corporation. While never apologizing or explaining, he made sure that the risk of oil spills or personal danger were reduced to an absolute minimum by creating a rigidly enforced, top down system governed by guide books. He also made clear to all that the company's mission was to serve its stockholders, not the country in which it had grown and prospered. To do so, ExxonMobil employed armies of engineers to find and extract the oil and private armies to protect them from local insurgents or revolutionary movements. The story of ExxonMobil's efforts in third world countries is simply chilling.

It has become a well-accepted fact that the world's climate is warming, and that at least some of this increasingly alarming trend can be attributed to carbon dioxide emissions from burning and extracting oil. A major element of ExxonMobil's efforts over the past two decades have been devoted to muddying the waters and denying corporate responsibility for any of this. An intriguing part of the story details the many ways the company has worked to confuse the public and its elected representatives about the part oil has to play in this difficult issue. The company has sponsored its own research studies, often through the use of university researchers or think tanks in which the role of the petroleum industry as a major funder is either hidden or de-emphasized. It's lobbying arm (often referred to as K-street because of the location of the lobbying efforts in Washington) employs a legion of public relations specialists and former members of Congress to speak and cajole legislators as well as to use campaign contributions to aide those members who can be relied upon. Even as Tillerson succeeded Raymond and subtly changed ExxonMobil's posture from climate change deniers to a reluctant acceptance of the reality of global warming, the company proved successful at defeating carbon legislation and reducing regulation. The extent of the resources available to ExxonMobil for such delaying efforts easily outstripped the efforts of organizations or government to effect change. The coziness between the G.W. Bush administration and ExxonMobil management is always present, but not a certain source. The corporation views itself as having a much longer time horizon than any political entity, elected, hereditary, or seized.

Steve Coll
  Photo copyright Lauren Shay Lavin

Author Steve Coll is not an ideologue nor a conspiracy theory monger. The book is extensively researched, relying on hundreds of on- and off-the-record interviews, many of them with ExxonMobil employees, as well as public documents, speeches, and more. While having a clear point of view, Coll gives due credit to the leaders and employees for their many strengths and achievements. Nevertheless, the overall effect of the book is to raise one's level of consciousness about the company's reluctance to encourage change and reduce risk. Steve Coll is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who currently serves as President of the non-partisan New America Foundation. He was previously the managing editor of the Washington Post and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His writing is thoughtful and clear. His goal, which he achieves, is to inform, not to inflame. Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power (685 pages) is a 2012 publication of The Penguin Press. It retails for $36.00. The book was provided to me by the publisher through TLC Book Tours.

Other Stops on Steve Coll's Book Tour
Thursday, May 3rd: Broken Teepee
Friday, May 4th: Diamond Cut Life
Monday, May 7th: Alternative Matters
Tuesday, May 8th: This is what I like
Wednesday, May 9th: Man of La Book
Wednesday, May 16th: Nanxi Liu
TBD: EmSun

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gettysburg 2012 - Sunday & Assessment

We've never been to a bluegrass festival which holds its audience very far into Sunday. Some festivals showcase bands or have a band contest on Sunday. Merlefest schedules blockbuster headliners as closers on Sunday. Others offer a gospel oriented half day which sort of fizzles out in the late morning or early afternoon as people leave. The MACC (Musicians Against Childhood Cancer) offers a four day summer festival beginning on Wednesday Some festivals have given up Sunday altogether, finishing their program on Saturday night. The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival offers a strong Sunday lineup beginning with a Gospel show with Dry Branch Fire Squad, presenting a couple of very strong newish bands, always featuring the Seldom Scene for a long set on Sunday mid-day, and closing this year with Danny Paisley's high powered and traditional program. I watched in dismay as the crowd trickled out during the day, leaving only a hard-core small group to finish out the day. Regardless, it was a day filled with fine music and rewarding performances.

Dry Branch Fires Sqaud
I covered DBFS in greater detail yesterday, but they were in fine form on Sunday morning, offering Ron Thomason's unique combination of raw traditional  bluegrass and topical, relevant humor. He's appeared at every Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and is an institution there. There are more pictures of this band on Saturday's entry.

The Hillbenders

The Hillbenders have stepped up to another level, as has the next band Della Mae.  The Benders are tighter and their musical is more melodic while also reaching new levels of energy and commitment to their music. Nolan Lawrence's wonderful baritone voice has great range and suppleness. Jimmy Rea, on guitar and vocals, is a whirling dervish of energy. Mark Cassidy, a graduate of Alan Munde's South Plains College program in Texas, has Munde's combination of Scruggs and melodic styles down to a T.  Chad Graves, on Dobro, has matured and improved on his instrument as well as continuing to be an energetic force.  Gary Rea on bass and harmony vocals is also strong. If you haven't seen the Hillbenders yet, you need to keep an eye out for them. They are clearly a bluegrass band influenced by the music they grew up with. While they can't say how they did, look for them on "America's Got Talent."

Nolan Lawrence
Jimmy Rea

  Mark Cassidy

Gary Rea

Chad Graves

 Chad Graves, Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence

Della Mae

Della Mae is NOT a girl band; it's a bluegrass band.  Each of the women in the band is a first rate instrumentalist and their singing is better than good. The recent addition of Shelby Means at bass keeps the vibe of the band very strong while their musicality is superb.  They sing enough traditional bluegrass to let fans know they've toiled in the fields of the genre, while vocalist Celia Woodsmith's rock/blues inflected vocals cover a wide range of possible directions for the band to go.  Kimber Ludiker, an award winning fiddler, is powerful, while Jenni Lyn Gardner, on mandolin, holds up her end of the line with grace and ability.  Courtney Hartman is a versatile, fast flat picker.  This year the band will be appearing at DelFest, Telluride, and Grey Fox as well as a number of more traditional events. Catch them wherever you can. 

Celia Woodsmith

Kimber Ludiker
Jenni Lyn Gardner
Courtney Hartman

 Shelby Means

 Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene represented a revolutionary change in bluegrass when it appeared in 1971. It's smooth sound and use presentation of bluegrassed versions of folk and rock songs from the period was greeted with derision and huge enthusiasm. Now, forty years later, their once unique sound has influenced generations of bluegrass pickers and fans. Their catalog is so familiar to their fans they can play multiple sets selected from their extraordinarily deep catalog.  Some fans will argue the present aggregation "just isn't the same" as the original band, but as the only Seldom Scene we've encountered, they are one of the most exciting and energizing band going.The most recent addition to the band has been with them for seventeen years.  While somewhat captive to the demands of their historically oriented fan base, they deliver. Ben Eldridge is the only original member of the band remaining. Dudley Connell remains one of the most dynamic performers in the genre.

Dudley Connell

Ben Eldridge

Fred Travers

Ronnie Simpkins

Lou Reid

Dudley Connell
 The Roys

The Roys play a strongly country music influenced brand of bluegrass with a very heavy emphasis on the songs and character of Dolly Parton.  Brother/sister Lee and Elaine Roy are earnest and hard working. Their band - young and filled with hot pickers.  Their road appearances have shown strong development recently as daily performance and very hard work are paying off for them.  They are sponsored by Compassion International, a well-regarded charity organization.

Elaine Roy

Lee Roy

Clint White

Sterling Massatt

Harry Clark

 Danny Paisley & Southern Grass

Danny Paisley follows in his father's footsteps, keeping the sound and music of Bob Paisley alive while adding new material and contributing his distinctive traditional bluegrass voice. For some years he traveled with his brother and the two Lundy brothers who were in the original Southern Grass band or descended from it.  Recently, he has added his twelve year old son Ryan, a blooming mandolin player, and younger musicians to the mix, while continuing the hard-edged sound characteristic of this band. Paisley closed out this delightful Sunday afternoon of bluegrass music.

Danny Paisley

Doug Meek

Mark Delaney

 Eric Troutman

Ryan Paisley

Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival Assessment: The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival has a distinguished history of presenting leading bluegrass bands from the full range of bluegrass music. Combining quite traditional bands like Audie Blaylock & Redline or the James King Band with cutting edge bands like Mountain Heart, The SteelDrivers, and the Hillbenders with in-the-pocket neo-traditional bands such as IIIrd Tyme Out, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and Blue Highway, the festival offers a true feast to its many regular attendees. The event is very well run with excellent vendors, great sound provided by Southard Audio, first rate emcees, and a very convenient merchandise tent that's often crowded after each performance. The swimming pool, sand pit, pirate ship, and swings make this a perfect venue to bring children to. In August, the children's academy is first rate.  As usual, I would wish management were more aggressive in discouraging smoking, but most attendees try to be considerate. Beer and wine are sold on the premises, but I encountered little or no drunkenness.  Treating people like adults seems to work quite well here. 

 Granite Hill Resort Campground is extremely spacious, providing full hookup sites, water/electric ones, and what appears to be an almost unlimited amount of rough camping.  The staff works hard to keep the sometimes overburdened bath houses clean, while the porta-johns are emptied daily. Someone commented to me that clean porta-johns are more important than great music at festivals.  Rich Winkleman, the son-in-law of festival founders Joe and Lil Cornet is pleasant, accommodating, and knows when to keep out of the way of allowing the festival to create its own environment. Known as a festival often having rain, this year's Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival had perfect weather for four days, eliciting comments from performers and regulars.  The August Festival has another first-rate lineup.  While drawing primarily from Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Washington D.C., and northern Virginia, Gettysburg is truly a national festival and worth inclusion on every bluegrass fan's list of favorites.

Due to bandwidth restrictions, I've had difficulty uploading videos. Over the next few busy weeks, I'll try hard to get them up to my YouTube Channel as well as to embed them on the relevant pages here at the blog and featuring Gettysburg performances at Ted and Irene's Most Excellent Bluegrass Adventure. Please visit each often to look for more Gettysburg additions as well as coverage of our usual festival schedule including Strawberry Park and Jenny Brook in June. Also look for some special events.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gettysburg BGF 2012 - Saturday

We had another warm, sunny day at Gettysburg as Saturday continued the run of fine weather and great music this year's festival has featured.  The lineup at Gettysburg is quite varied while never straying away from bluegrass. The audience is considerably younger than many we attend, and there are few rules. Nevertheless, I've seen no stumbling drunks, something I often encounter and "no alcohol" festivals. The Gettysburg vibe is live, real, and palpable.  Let's move to the music:

James King Band

James King has been quite ill recently, and the effects seem to have had a positive outcome for him. James looks healthy, and is singing better than I've heard him in years.  He also brought a strong band to Gettysburg, pickers who knew how to pick and were familiar with his music. It's a real delight to see and hear James feeling better and performing so well.

Zach Rambo

Clay Lillard

Eddie Biggerstaff

James King & Pete Wernick

Dancing isn't for the Young Alone

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad is a fabled band mixing traditional music with contemporary humor in a unique fashion. They're a not to be missed attraction at the festivals where they perform.

Ron Thomason

 Brian Aldridge

Dan Russell

Tom Boyd

Ron Thomason Hamboning

Tom Boyd

Blue Highway

Staying together as a unit for seventeen years makes a huge difference in the quality and productivity of a great band. Blue Highway has managed this and created a distinguished body of work, mostly using original songs written by members of the band. Every position is strong and the synergy makes them great.

Wayne Taylor

Rob Ickes

Shawn Lane

 Jason Burleson

Tim Stafford

 Hank Janney - Emcee

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage

Rhonda Vincent continues to offer tuneful music, lively personality, and a deep sense of connection to her huge fan base, guaranteeing increased attendance wherever she appears and generating intense loyalty.  In her two sets at Gettysburg she appeared to be in better than usual voice and well-rested. It's always a pleasure to see her perform, no matter how many times you've seen her before.

Hunter Berry

Mickey Harris & Ben Helson 

Brent Davis

Aaron McDaris

James King Makes Guest Appearance
 Garland Goble

The SteelDrivers

I don't know whether it's my growth in taste, familiarity, changes in personnel, or actual changes in the music of the SteelDrivers, but their music has become increasingly enjoyable to me in recent performances. Gary Nichols, their new lead singer, has a supple and versatile voice. Fiddler Tami Rogers harmonies are raw and clear while her work on the fiddle is among the best. Mike Fleming on bass adds both beat and vocal strength, while Richard Bailey and Brent Truitt are always solid. It was unusual and delightful to see this band in the daylight. 

Brent Truitt & Tami Rogers

Richard Bailey

Gary Nichols

Mike Fleming

Brent Truitt

 Tami Rogers & Mike Fleming

Tami Rogers

The Tuttles w/A.J. Lee

The Tuttles are a family band from California augmented with the addition of singer/mandolinist A.J. Lee. The band is young and in need of work on stagecraft but bears watching. They show admirable instrumental virtuosity. As is frequently true with kids bands, their vocal work will need to mature before an adequate analysis is possible. Molly Tuttle, a student at Berklee College of Music, won the general division of the prestigious Chris Austin song writing contest at Merlefest this year and shows promise as a song writer.

 Sullivan Tuttle

 A.J. Lee

Michael Tuttle

 Jack & Molly Tuttle

Sound Guys Deserve a Rest