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At Exxon, Making the Case for Oil

Sunday, November 16, 2008 

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

For decades, “the world will continue to rely dominantly on hydrocarbons to fuel its economy,” says Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

Published: November 15, 2008

SIX years of relentlessly rising prices have showered the oil industry with record profits even as whipsawing energy costs have left many Americans alternately furious and baffled.


Exxon’s liquefied natural gas plant in Qatar. The company is under pressure as more governments take control of their oil and gas fields and environmentalists push for limits on fossil fuels.

Now that the roller coaster ride appears to be screeching to a halt, one corporate giant remains confident it can weather the slowdown and uncertainty better than its rivals.

“It’s not that we like lower prices, but our competitive advantage is more obvious to people in a low-price environment,” says Rex W. Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest, mightiest oil company. “But in a high-price environment, our competitive advantage has been quite evident as well.”

However undaunted Exxon feels, it’s still facing more complicated scenarios than mere price shifts. It’s straining to adjust to a host of potentially seismic issues that raise pointed questions about its long-term strategy. Oil reserves are harder to find, resource-rich governments have become more assertive, and global warming concerns have spurred forceful calls to action on environmental matters.

Moreover, with the election of Barack Obama, a new chapter is about to open for the nation’s energy policy. Mr. Obama says he wants to move away from oil dependence, and his policies are likely to emphasize conservation, alternative energy sources and new limits on the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.

The question for Exxon, which Mr. Obama repeatedly singled out as an exemplar of corporate greed during the presidential campaign, is whether the model that has served the company so well for so long will keep it competitive — or whether it will still be producing hydrocarbons long after the world has moved away from dirty fuels.

Last year, Exxon, which is based in Irving, Tex., celebrated its 125th anniversary, marking a straight line that connects it to John D. Rockefeller’s original Standard Oil Trust before the government broke up the enterprise. While other oil companies try to paint themselves greener, Exxon’s executives believe their venerable model has been battle-tested. The company’s mantra is unwavering: brutal honesty about the need for oil and gas to power economies for decades to come.

“Over the years, there have been many predictions that our industry was in its twilight years, only to be proven wrong,” says Mr. Tillerson. “As Mark Twain said, the news of our demise has been greatly exaggerated.”

FROM a purely financial standpoint, there’s no doubt that Exxon’s business strategy has paid off. Despite the broader economic turmoil, Exxon is worth around $375 billion — more than General ElectricBank of America and Google combined — making it the world’s largest corporation.

Its balance sheet is pristine and its credit rating is better than that of most governments. If Exxon’s revenue were stacked against the world’s G.D.P.’s, it would rank between Austria and Greece as the 26th-largest economy. As oil prices peaked this summer, the company once again set a record as the most profitable American corporation, earning $14.8 billion in the third quarter. Since 2004 alone, the company has rung up profits of about $180 billion.

Throughout its various incarnations — the Standard Oil Trust, Standard Oil of New Jersey, the Exxon Corporation, and now Exxon Mobil — the company has been an ambiguous fascination for many Americans. It is an enduring icon, as lasting as Coca-Colaor General Electric, but also a perennial corporate villain, one that reminds the nation of its dependence on hydrocarbons.

For some, the environmental impact of that earnings gusher outweighs the financial gains.

“Being Exxon is never having to say you’re sorry,” says Kert Davies, the research director atGreenpeace, the environmental advocacy group that has battled with Exxon for years.

On the financial front, however, Exxon’s jaw-dropping results have continued to leave many analysts beaming.

“It’s the world’s greatest company, period,” says Arjun N. Murti, a Goldman Sachs oil analyst. “I would put Exxon up against any other company at any other period of time.”

“It is also the most misunderstood company in the world,” he adds. “For many people, the image of Exxon is the Exxon Valdez. But there is much more to Exxon than that. Somehow, Exxon has persevered over the past 100 years with the best culture and management team any company could have.”

What might be called the Exxon Way can be summed up in three ideals: discipline, patience and long-term vision. It is a formula the company drills into its managers from the moment they join Exxon, and which it keeps repeating through their careers. It explains the company’s resilience and its view that it has survived, and thrived, through countless commodity cycles.

“We are all homegrown,” Mr. Tillerson says. “That happens through a very deliberate and very closely managed process, and it starts the day the person walks through the door with us. And we are the product of that system. If there is a DNA it is something you grow into after many years of working with your colleagues. It is clearly the defining strength of the company.”

TAKE a room full of oil managers, and the Exxon people usually stand out, even as they try not to draw much attention to themselves. They typically band together, and often cultivate an aura of secrecy — and sometimes superiority — toward the outside world.

At Exxon, the engineers rule. From its very early days, the company has focused relentlessly on one thing: finding more ways to squeeze every penny out of each barrel of oil.

Mr. Rockefeller was an accountant who was obsessed with efficiency, and his fixations still run through the company’s veins, says Joseph Allen Pratt, a historian and management professor at the University of Houston. Mr. Pratt is writing the fifth volume of Exxon’s official corporate history, which the company is partly financing.

“There definitely is an Exxon way,” Mr. Pratt says. “This is John D. Rockefeller’s company, this is Standard Oil of New Jersey, this is the one that is most closely shaped by Rockefeller’s traditions. Their values are very clear. They are deeply embedded. They have roots in 100 years of corporate history.”

But the company’s DNA goes well beyond the surface. Rivals acknowledge its expertise around an oil field, even as they bristle at what they call arrogance. Exxon’s own executives brag that their company outperforms its peers by sticking to their playbook.

“Exxon is a very professional company,” says Jeroen van der Veer, the chief executive of a leading competitor, Royal Dutch Shell.

Others say they respect the company’s clarity of vision. “People know the rules when they work with Exxon,” said a top oil executive who asked not to be identified in order not to jeopardize his company’s relationship with Exxon. “Exxon can pick its battles. It’s a pretty good strategy to have if people know that you will fight to the bitter end.”

Examples of such grit abound. After a dispute with the Venezuelan government, during which Exxon persuaded a British court to briefly freeze $12 billion in government assets to fight what it considered an expropriation, the country’s oil minister accused the company of “legal terrorism.”

Whatever its critics might say about the company’s hard-headedness, it has paid off in Exxon’s bottom line. Last year, Exxon’s profit per barrel was $17, exceeding BP’s $12 a barrel, Shell’s $14 and Chevron’s $16, according to Neil McMahon, a Bernstein Research analyst.

No one is apologetic at Exxon about what it takes to get those results, especially Mr. Tillerson.

“The business model is based on a disciplined and rigorous approach to dealing with scientific data and facts,” he says. “What we do is largely invisible to the public. They see the nozzle at the pump, and that’s about it. They don’t see the enormous level of risk that is managed very well to get that gallon of gas.”

Exxon has battled powerful forces in recent years, locking horns with governments and multinational rivals from Africa to Central Asia, from Eastern Europe to South America. But last spring, the challenge struck closer to home — at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Dallas.

As oil prices zoomed above $100 a barrel, a group of investors tried to force Exxon to lay out a new strategy for developing alternative fuels and addressing global warming. While the challenge was not unprecedented — raucous shareholder meetings have been a staple for years — the dissent was led by a symbolic, if slightly quixotic, constituency: descendants of Mr. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil in 1882.

“Exxon Mobil needs to reconnect with the forward-looking and entrepreneurial vision of my great-grandfather,” said Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a Tufts University economist, speaking for the family. The company, she added at the time, was focused “on a narrow path that ignores the rapidly shifting energy landscape around the world.”

Exxon’s top managers easily brushed off the Rockefeller revolt, as they have so many obstacles over the years. Even so, Exxon and the other oil giants are facing a stark new landscape.

High prices have meant stratospheric profits, of course, but they have also led to more restrictions on access to oil fields around the world, making it harder for companies to increase their production and replace reserves.

“The largest oil companies are under tremendous pressure,” said Fadel Gheit, a veteran oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Company, who worked for the Mobil Corporation before moving to Wall Street.

In the 1960s, the so-called Seven Sisters oil companies, including Exxon and Mobil, controlled most of the world’s oil reserves. Today, state-owned companies, like Saudi Aramco, hold the vast majority of these reserves, while other resource holders like Russia and Venezuela have become increasingly assertive about limiting access to their reserves.

“The problem is very real,” said Henry Lee, a lecturer in energy policy at Harvard University. “The oil majors are looking at a very different world than 20 years ago. That has big implications for the future of these companies. They all know it and they are all trying to figure out where they are going to be in 10 and 20 years.”

The threat from state-controlled energy companies — and the larger question of tapping reserves — led to the big wave of industry mergers in the late 1990s, including Exxon’s $81 billion purchase of Mobil in 1999.

“We were worried,” says Lou Noto, the former chairman of Mobil. “We expected the environment to become more volatile, and more competitive, and more difficult geographically and geologically. The easy stuff had been found and we were getting into very esoteric stuff.”

While the combination of Exxon and Mobil created the world’s most valuable oil company, the joint entity has struggled to expand production. Exxon derives its strength from its size. But its problems are also a function of size: the company has become so large that to grow it must find increasingly big projects.

At an analyst meeting on Wall Street in March, Mr. Tillerson acknowledged the difficulty he faces: “The challenge we have today is continuing to have access to resources.”

Since 1999, Exxon has spent about $125 billion foraging for new energy supplies around the globe. It expects to spend $25 billion to $30 billion each year through 2012 to seek and develop hydrocarbons. Yet the company is pumping about as much oil and gas today as Exxon and Mobil once did separately. In fact, Exxon’s hydrocarbon production has been falling recently, dropping 8 percent, to 3.6 million barrels a day in the third quarter, compared with 3.9 million barrels a day in the period last year.

With about $37 billion in cash and a clean balance sheet, Exxon can afford to be picky about what prospects to explore. It has about 120 projects on its books, either in operation or in the planning stages, and it sits on up to 72 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves around the world, the most of any nonstate oil company.

To keep up momentum, Exxon plans to start up more than 60 fields or major projects by 2011, including dozens of offshore fields in West Africa, export terminals for liquefied natural gas in the Middle East, and scores of gas and oil developments in Australia, Indonesia, the United States and the Caspian Sea.

Still, despite its ability to stride the energy world like a colossus, Exxon remains more cautious than its rivals. Rather than overspend, it sows its huge returns in-house through share buybacks and large dividend payments to shareholders.

From 2003 to the third quarter of 2008, the company has paid out nearly $150 billion to shareholders — spending over $40 billion in dividends and buying back about $110 billion worth of shares.

Yet Exxon’s shares are on track for their worst performance since the early 1980s, a result of the market sell-off and the drop in oil prices recently. Some analysts also said it reflected the questions hanging over the company’s long-term strategy. “Exxon is a cash machine, and they could be using that cash to invest in clean technologies that would expand their base,” said Andy Stevenson, an energy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Right now, they have no growth story. They are trapped in oil and gas.”

IF Exxon maintained its current buyback rate of $8 billion each quarter, it would become a private corporation between 2020 and 2030, according to a report by Bernstein Research. While that’s unlikely, these payouts — $30 billion so far this year — have been criticized by some experts, who would like to see the company invest more to increase its production or expand its reserves.

“If a company is not replacing reserves, and they are spending their cash to buy back their shares, and they are not growing their production, that is called liquidating the company,” says Amy Myers Jaffe, the associate director of Rice University’s energy program in Houston.

Ultimately, the biggest test for Exxon’s long-term business model is the fact that rising energy use — whether in the United States or in China — will eventually have to be reconciled with reducing carbon emissions and finding low-carbon energy sources. But as its contentious shareholder meeting with the Rockefeller heirs demonstrated, few topics are as touchy as Exxon’s stance on climate change.

During the tenure of Lee R. Raymond, who ran the company from 1993 to 2005, Exxon became the lightning rod in the debate about climate change. Throughout the 1990s, the company was vilified by environmental groups and scientists for questioning the impact of human activities — especially the use of fossil fuels — on global warming.

Gingerly, over the last three years, Exxon has moved away from its extreme position. It stopped financing climate skeptics this year, and has sought to soften its image with a $100 million advertising campaign featuring real company executives, scientists and managers. One of the ads said the company aimed to provide energy “with dramatically lower CO2 emissions.”

The company has acknowledged that climate change is a risk to the world. In a speech given before the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London last year, Mr. Tillerson said policy makers should consider setting a carbon tax or a plan that limits carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade system.

But while Exxon is slowly unshackling itself from Mr. Raymond’s stance on global warming, it remains faithful to his legacy by dismissing most green alternatives and sticking with hydrocarbons. Although the company’s tone has changed, its strategy has not. Despite growing pressures on oil companies to invest in alternative energy, Exxon’s long-term view remains unapologetically tied to fossil fuels.

“Rex looks more approachable than his predecessor,” says a rival executive who requested anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his relationship with Mr. Tillerson, “but he is more inflexible.”

Exxon’s belief is that as populations expand and economies grow in developing countries, they will aspire to the comforts and amenities taken for granted in industrialized nations, and this will mean more cars on the roads — and more oil to power them.

According to Exxon’s own outlook, global oil demand is set to reach 116 million barrels a day by 2030, up sharply from 86 million barrels a day today.

Meanwhile, renewable fuels, like solar, wind and biofuels, will grow at a brisk pace but they will account for just 2 percent of the world’s energy supplies by then, according to Exxon, while oil, gas and coal will represent 80 percent of global energy needs by 2030.

“For the foreseeable future — and in my horizon that is to the middle of the century — the world will continue to rely dominantly on hydrocarbons to fuel its economy,” Mr. Tillerson says.

For the moment, Exxon does not see much business sense in investing in solar, as BP has, or wind, like Shell, or geothermal, like Chevron. Like many oil executives, Mr. Tillerson also has little sympathy for corn-based ethanol, which he once derisively referred to as “moonshine.”

Exxon does not entirely close the door to alternative investments someday. But its previous forays into renewable fuels — it was a big investor in nuclear power, synthetic fuels andsolar energy in the 1970s — are seen as a costly lesson.

“Being first in something is not necessarily the best position to be in,” Mr. Tillerson says. “You can be more profitable for your shareholders by coming at a later stage.”

Still, Exxon sees itself as a technology-based company. Its labs are developing a thin-film battery separator and an onboard hydrogen system that could increase the range of electric cars or make the current internal combustion engines much more efficient.

The company points out that it has invested more than $1.5 billion to improve its own energy use and cut carbon emissions since 2004. And it boasts that it is spending $100 million to finance a long-term research program at Stanford University, along with General Electric, Toyota and the oilfield-services company Schlumberger, to find ways to increase energy supplies while reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.

But to many of the company’s critics, these measures look like a convenient smoke screens.

“That’s kind of laughable,” says Mr. Davies of Greenpeace. “What Exxon is clearly saying is that we are addicted to oil.”

THE biggest area where Exxon may have an impact in tackling climate change is in what the industry calls carbon capture and sequestration. Most climate experts say that combating global warming will involve preventing heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide from being spewed into the atmosphere by capturing them and pumping them underground.

In May, Exxon said it would invest $100 million in a demonstration plant in Wyoming to test a new cryogenic technology to capture carbon dioxide by freezing it. Managing these flows, and reducing the costs of this prohibitively expensive technology, may ultimately create a new business for Exxon if it can apply it to large emission sources, like coal-fired power plants.

But for the company to see this as a large-scale opportunity would require a “cultural leap,” Ms. Jaffe says.

“Exxon may wind up being the carbon sequestration king, by accident,” she says.

Whatever shape Exxon’s business model takes, analysts say it is unlikely that the company will get there quietly.

“They are tough, and they have the reputation of being an unyielding company,” says Michelle Michot Foss, who heads the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. “But it’s a tough business. They are criticized for being too conservative. But they are very patient, and probably in the long term that pays off.”


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