They Win Every Time

No doubt about it, the giant energy companies are talented survivors. Think of the crimes fairly or unfairly charged against Exxon and its six large “sisters”: collusion with Arab oil producers, strangling independent operators, withholding available supplies, spoiling the environment, offering bribes at home and abroad, sabotaging solar energy, and wasting an increasingly scarce resource. One would have thought that a country willing on slender evidence to ban saccharin might actually have done something to tame the private government of oil.

In fact, there was a moment during the winter of 1973-1974 when such action appeared likely. Just after OPEC’s embargo, Congress called a group of dignified corporate officials down to Washington, and the entire nation enjoyed on the nightly news programs the spectacle of Senator Henry Jackson bullying them. Nothing like this had happened since the head of General Motors publicly apologized for spying on Ralph Nader.

It was a heady time. Legislators competed with each other to introduce severe statutes that would split up the energy conglomerates according to their different functions of producing, refining, and marketing (a favorite scheme of the late Senator Philip Hart), or set up TVA-like government-managed enterprises on federal oil lands (the aim of Senator Adlai Stevenson’s Federal Oil and Gas Corporation), or subject energy prices and policies to increased regulation by Washington. (Practically every congressman declared himself as favoring the last of these.)

Denouncing the big oil companies became itself a small industry. After warming up on the subject of ITT,1 the British journalist Anthony Sampson produced in 1975 an equally acid account of the Seven Sisters and the energy-addicted societies they have labored to create.2 At the end of 1976, John M. Blair, a lifelong critic of the industry, a civil servant, Senate staff member, and economist, published his last major work, The Control of Oil,3 a nearly encyclopedic analysis of the devices, domestic and foreign, legal and illegal, that the major oil companies have used to manipulate world markets for oil and gas in their own interest.

John J. McCloy, of all people, supplied a series of interesting footnotes to Blair’s chronicle. McCloy headed a special investigating committee following Gulf Oil’s embarrassment by the SEC’s revelation of its political briberies. His report4 spoke of dummy Bahama corporations set up to channel illegal contributions to American politicians and usually legal but ethically dubious payments to their foreign counterparts. McCloy’s committee, established by Gulf itself, pointed out that the $12 million in questionable payments “spread over more than a decade” was “relatively small” in proportion to Gulf’s $12.5 billion assets, $18.2 billion in gross revenues, $1 billion net income, and $56 million in charitable and educational contributions. Still, McCloy and his associates thought it right for Gulf to confess its sins, and promise to offend no more.

Among its other merits, Robert Engler’s second book5 about the oil industry gives a convincing explanation of why no effective restraint on the industry’s conduct of its affairs has…

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