Slippery Business

Inside Big Oil's little hint that it's picking Romney to win.

ExxonMobil is only a business, yet for a century and a half it has vexed, baffled, and unsettled us. Take Hannibal Lecter, Daniel Plainview, and Darth Vader, roll them into a single sinister character, and you start to grasp the feelings of generations of critics. "We need policy change on a global scale, and Exxon has been at the forefront of those blocking change," former Vice President Al Gore wrote a week ago on his blog.

But why? There are its outsized profits, of course -- $41.1 billion last year alone -- plus the remarkably enduring heartless persona of John D. Rockefeller, its founder in the old Standard Oil days. But Gilded Age ruthlessness and success in the contemporary capitalist West do not sufficiently explain the shadow that ExxonMobil seems still to cast on our collective imagination. After all, today's Apple is bigger than ExxonMobil, and the last of the robber barons have been dead for the better part of a century.

Enter a surprising and trenchant new decipherer of our confounded anxiety: Rex Tillerson, boss of the oil giant. Since becoming CEO six years ago, Tillerson has muddled the company's traditional image with a polished and deliberate nuance that seems to project caring. He has been "cautious, genial, accommodating and eager to soften [the company's] hard edges," Steve Coll, the author of Private Empire, a new book on ExxonMobil, told me.

But two weeks ago, the mild-mannered, pin-striped executive seemed to abruptly throw caution to the wind. In a speech before the elite Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, he suggested that Americans suck it up and adapt to global warming. "We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this," Tillerson said in reply to a question from the audience. "Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around -- we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions." For starters, Tillerson said, ExxonMobil had set out to educate the "illiterate" public as to the facts, and move them away from the purveyors of "manufactured fear."

At once, we are back to the Exxon we once knew.

What got into the "cautious" Tillerson is a question between him, his board, and their shareholders. But conspiracy theories are unnecessary to explain the resulting nervousness of critics: As Coll's book describes, Tillerson's predecessor as CEO, Lee Raymond, declared war on efforts to restrain CO2 emissions, spending millions of dollars of company money starting in the late 1990s to fund writers and think tanks that cast doubt on climate science. The cash came from two places: directly from ExxonMobil's public affairs unit and channeled through the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's lobbying arm in Washington, D.C., Coll writes, and it managed to help roil four decades of U.S. environmental politics.

The surprising thing for me has not only been Tillerson's apparent overnight transformation into an indelicate roughneck on steroids, but the relatively little attention it has attracted in the community that watches him most closely -- Wall Street. As far as I can tell, the new Tillerson has surfaced without notice. None of the Wall Street oil analysts I contacted for this story had even heard of the speech. Given the corporate risks of assuming such a bold public persona, it might be prudent for finance types to take a look.

ExxonMobil insists that there is no change in Tillerson or in company policy. Increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere are warming the planet, and the risks of this impact must be quantified, said Kenneth Cohen, ExxonMobil's vice president for public and government affairs. Tillerson's use of the word "adaptation" does not signal a policy shift, he said. As for Tillerson's other language, he said, "Rex has a well-earned reputation for being straight-forward and telling people exactly what he believes to be true after spending a lot of time thinking about it."

Is Cohen right? Has Tillerson always been a salty-tongued executive who urged the population to adapt to global warming? Did neither I nor any of my current and former colleagues notice? If that is the case, I apologize to my readers for taking note only now, after years of covering the company.

Moving on to politics, Tillerson's remarks also seem important in the context of the closely fought U.S. presidential campaign. Given ExxonMobil's history of putting its lobbying might behind its deepest beliefs (and interests), the partial revival of Raymond's overt hostility toward climate science seems notable. Tillerson may also be signaling, intentionally or not, a shot across the bow of President Barack Obama's green instincts. Tillerson and ExxonMobil appear to believe "there is no [political] cost to talking like this," says Edward Chow, Chevron Corp.'s former head of international external affairs, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Three years ago, we saw a very different Rex Tillerson. In January 2009, the ExxonMobil CEO was so worried about the Obama juggernaut that he engineered a wholesale change in the company's public policy. He abandoned his predecessor's confrontational climate policy, declared ExxonMobil a believer in global warming, and said the company favored a tax on carbon as the best way to reduce emissions. Tillerson's latest remarks seem to repudiate that switch.

But there appears to be more to it, according to Chow, who thinks it is a clue to ExxonMobil's national electoral preference. "The same vanity displayed in the speech is in view here, saying ‘The country cannot in its right mind re-elect this guy.' I can see them believing it," Chow told me.

If this were someone besides Tillerson speaking, however, we could perhaps disregard the speech as a mere rant of a frustrated oilman. After all, on Dec. 14, 2009, Tillerson announced the $41 billion acquisition of XTO, a big U.S. specialist in fracking, a drilling method formally called hydraulic fracturing. At the time, Wall Street asset managers questioned the astuteness of a high-priced deal given that natural gas was selling for about $5.24 per 1,000 cubic meters, or less than half the peak of about $13 per 1,000 cubic meters in summer 2008. Tillerson argued that the deal would pay off in the long-term, but natural gas prices plunged further.

On Tuesday, natural gas futures closed at $2.73 per thousand cubic meters, or 47 percent lower than they were the day of the 2009 deal. At CFR, Tillerson put that fact in context. "We are all losing our shirts today," he said of the industry. "You know, we're making no money. It's all in the red." So it's possible to see the entire speech as a gigantic venting exercise.

But Tillerson is too deliberate a player to succumb to ranting in public, particularly in front of an establishment crowd such as the Council on Foreign Relations. Checking around, what I found is that in fact Tillerson merely expressed publicly what insiders say routinely in private. While it may sound cavalier to the common ear -- including mine, even hanging out with oilmen as I do as part of the job -- many industry players sincerely believe that adaptation is the answer to global warming. (You know, if Kansas gets too hot, you just pick up the entire population of 3 million people and shift them to, say, Colorado.) Many industry hands regard it as foolhardy and even futile to attempt to scale back fossil fuel consumption enough to contain the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Revolution levels, which is the goal of climate scientists.

Tillerson also seems to find industry traction with his suggestion that, instead of focusing interminably on global warming, it would be far more humanitarian to provide fossil fuels to huge populations currently lacking electricity or cooking food over dung-lit fires. "When you are able to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, that has to be the first global objective," Donald Lindsey, chief investment officer at George Washington University, told me. "Maybe that's the message. If you look at the extent of global problems, poverty is an immediate need that has to be solved, but isn't something that can be addressed by continuing to attack the industry."

In an email exchange, Coll explained Tillerson's shift as a reflection of an apparent transformation in industry fortunes. Until just a few months ago, major oil companies spoke mostly of a struggle to replenish the hydrocarbons that they drill every year, and the effort to keep their reserve base stable and growing. But a new North American oil boom, underpinned by a technological breakthrough in fracking, has appeared to fundamentally improve the industry's outlook.

According to Coll, these happier days have presented the industry with a new political risk -- "resistance to fracking and evidence that global warming is getting worse." In this scenario, Tillerson needs to beat down environmentalists if ExxonMobil is to succeed.

Coll thinks this strategy will fail. "Tillerson's public comments do not represent a convincing or plausible strategy to manage that risk, in my judgment," he told me. "He's in danger of boxing ExxonMobil in politically." Tillerson's views might find mainstream alignment if Republican Mitt Romney wins election in November, for example. But what if he doesn't? Or what if he does but sometime later, U.S. politics shift back in favor of environmentalists? ExxonMobil could be yet again in the awkward position of explaining its apparent antagonism to major green goals. That's the kind of political risk that used to keep guys like Rex Tillerson up at night.

David McNew/Getty Images


Lost City

After a week of wanton destruction, is the legendary city of Timbuktu finally coming to an end?

For more images of Timbuktu's sacred shrines, click here.

Late in the afternoon of April 20, 1828, "just as the sun was touching the horizon," as he later described it, a young Frenchman, barely 29, walked into Timbuktu disguised as an Arab, wearing long robes and a turban. René Caillié had begun his journey two years earlier in Senegal, and when the elation of arrival wore off, he looked around him at the streets of Timbuktu, a historic town he knew for its "grandeur and wealth." The city had been part of the Mali Empire, which was known for its trade in gold, salt, and spices, much of which passed through Timbuktu on its way north across the Sahara. Malian emperors built grand mosques in the city, and the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited in 1353, confirming Timbuktu's importance to Mali and trans-Saharan trade. But Caillié was disappointed. "The sight before me did not answer my expectations," he wrote in his memoirs. "The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour … all nature wore a dreary aspect."

Caillié had expected to sail to the city on a large wooden canoe, part of a flotilla he'd been traveling with for weeks down the Niger River. But he found that getting to Timbuktu was not like entering Paris on the River Seine: Once docked, he had to walk eight miles into the city from the riverbank. Caillié, without formal education or military training, was the second European to see Timbuktu, and the first to make it out alive. The British officer Maj. Alexander Gordon Laing had been there two years earlier, having crossed the Sahara from the north, but was murdered in the desert as he started his return journey home.

And so, with Caillié's damning words, began Timbuktu's long decline in the eyes of the Western world. For much of its long history, however, Timbuktu has been a city whose value seems to exist in stories of its former glory -- a glory that Muslim militant groups who now control northern Mali are trying to wipe out stone by stone. Once merely a seasonal camp for Tuareg herdsmen, Timbuktu evolved into a wealthy regional trading post. It gained renown when Malian emperor Mansa Musa visited on his way back from Mecca in 1324 and inspired by his hajj ordered the construction of the Djinguereber Mosque for the study of Islam. The city's reputation for the study of Muslim theology soon spread into Europe and the Muslim countries of Asia. Timbuktu became the cultural center of the Mali and Songhai empires, both of which were gone by the end of the 16th century.

Timbuktu, however, remained. The city survived the occupation of the Moorish army that defeated the Songhai Empire and the years of chaos that engulfed West Africa until the French conquered the region at the end of the 19th century. The French recognized the historic value of Timbuktu and established a military garrison there to protect the city and patrol the northern regions of the Niger River. But France's dream of enriching itself and its West African colonies off the mineral and agricultural wealth of the region never paid off. By the 1960s, just as modern Mali was getting its start as an independent country, Timbuktu had dwindled, as the British historian Basil Davidson wrote in his book Africa in History, to something "remote and humble."

Growing up in Colorado, I had little awareness of Africa, but like many American kids, I'd heard of Timbuktu because of its odd place in our lexicon. Timbuktu was that far removed place we never quite understood but somehow admired, that little town where we'd stopped once for gas in Utah on some family trip, or that road through the western Colorado sagebrush where my high school track team's bus broke down. "Here we are," someone would say, "stuck in Timbuktu." I loved the very sound of the word, Timbuktu, the way its syllables bounced expectantly off the tongue. And I desperately wanted to go there.

I finally got my wish in July 1986, while on vacation from my work as a Peace Corps English teacher in neighboring Niger. I traveled into the city of Timbuktu in a bush taxi, a barely functioning Peugeot 504 station wagon over the worst road I have ever traveled. Pulverized dust billowed like soap suds, hiding deep ruts that pinched and punctured three of the four tires. The 30-mile journey from where I'd picked up the taxi on the main north-south road became a two-day ordeal. When we drove into Timbuktu in late afternoon, I was exhausted and, I admit, disappointed. Low brown mud buildings defined the architecture, giving it a temporary feeling. Sand drifted along the foundations of buildings, which oddly reassured me. I'd definitely arrived at the Sahara. What surprised me most was when I drank water from a well in the city, not from a faucet, and it tasted clear and cool right from the desert itself.

Timbuktu's only hotel at that time was full, so I spent two nights on a mat on the concrete patio of a local bar, a bordello really, and then I fled back the way I'd come. The heat was awful, and as Caillié wrote in his memoirs, there was no way to escape it day or night. I slept little and discarded my mosquito net at night for fear it would block the slightest breeze. I had enough energy to check out Caillié's living quarters, marked by a bronze plaque. In the end, though, I could not agree with his descriptions of Timbuktu. "Everything," he wrote, "had a dull appearance."

I found the city and desert beyond to be one of the most beautiful and haunting landscapes I've ever seen. At night, the desert sky was so bright and clear it seemed to rest right on the rooftops. During the day, the city and landscape blended into the blinding pale sky as if Timbuktu itself were floating on a cloud. I loved how the wind continuously rubbed the tops of dunes, blurring them into the horizon and forming ridges that looked as if they'd been pressed by a giant thumb and forefinger. This is part of the reason why I keep going back to the Sahel and the southern Sahara -- because the land is so big and so extreme. The other reason, and perhaps it's not all that surprising, is that the people who live there are so resilient.

Here is what I mean: In 1991, when it looked like the country was doomed to suffocate under military dictatorship and places like Timbuktu would fade away entirely, Mali cast off the military and ushered in an era of change. Mali's democracy, corrupt though it was, sped up the country's development -- building roads, schools, hospitals, hotels; organizing its national archives; and retooling the infrastructure of the capital, Bamako.

In 1988, the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO named three mosques and 16 mausoleums in Timbuktu to its World Heritage list, making the city the rock of Mali's tourism industry. Universities, international organizations, and philanthropists began pumping in millions of dollars to protect and catalog the artifacts and libraries of Timbuktu, including tombs of Muslim saints and warriors dating to the 15th century. There are, according to UNESCO, some 60 privately held libraries in Timbuktu and more than 700,000 ancient manuscripts, most of them connected to the Muslim heritage of much of West and North Africa, as well as Southern Europe. During the last 21 years, according to Cherif Keita, professor of African culture and literature at Carleton College in the United States, "Timbuktu has been undergoing something of a renaissance, really."

All of this, we now know, is being swept away by the Islamist rebel groups that have hijacked the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali and taken its most important population centers, including Timbuktu, in a bid to impose sharia law on all of Mali. In the last few weeks, fighters from the group Ansar Dine, which is Arabic for "Defenders of the Faith," have begun methodically destroying ancient tombs and mosques in Timbuktu, which is said to have been the home at one time or another of 333 Muslim saints. Using rifle butts, picks, and shovels, they bashed in the entrance to the Sidi Yahia mosque, named for one of the first imams of Timbuktu. The long-sealed doorway, legend claimed, would not be opened until the last day of the world. In Gao, the city north of Timbuktu that was the former capital of the Songhai Empire, they have reportedly damaged the Tomb of Askia Muhammad, the most powerful of the Songhai emperors and a devout Muslim.

But the Taliban may have set the precedent for such attacks when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, two mammoth sixth-century statues carved from a sandstone cliff in Afghanistan. Despite pleas from the international community, Taliban soldiers dynamited them in 2001. Over the ensuing decade, attacks on Muslim holy sites by Islamic militants have ensued with sad regularity in Iraq and even recently in Libya, where militants have taken advantage of the chaos following the fall of the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. In Mali, the destruction in Timbuktu marks a conflict within Islam itself. Hard-line Salafi Muslims, who make up groups like Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, condemn the existence of icons they say worshippers may hold above god, while the local Sufi practice of Islam tolerates icons and the playing of music, though not as objects of worship.

But Timbuktu has become so much more than its ancient history. The Timbuktu region is also the childhood home of the celebrated guitarist and singer, the late Ali Farka Toure, who grew up in a village near the city. He started a tradition of mixing African and Western musical styles that other musicians in the region have followed. Timbuktu itself has also become a center for West African music, drawing thousands in the cool month of January to the semiannual Festival in the Desert concert, which this year drew the singer Bono as its star event. The Tuareg rebellion that launched northern Mali's present troubles started only weeks later, and no plans have been announced for a future festival. It's a shame, as Mali seemed to be making real progress. The government had already paved most of the major north-south highway to Gao and was working on the road into Timbuktu, as well as a canal to bring the Niger River to the city's doorstep (which would have certainly pleased Caillié).

But the music and the construction have fallen silent now, replaced by the sharp blows of axes and the spitting of gunfire. And yet, across the spread of 1,000 years of history, this is nothing new in Timbuktu, which has been occupied and sacked by numerous armies, from the Tuaregs to the Songhai to the Arabs, from the Moors to the French. The last serious occupation, one that did real physical damage to the city according to Keita, was when the Moors invaded and toppled the Songhai Empire in 1591. But no one and no force of nature, not even the Sahara -- whose sands creep up the foundations of the city's homes -- has been able to wipe Timbuktu off the map. Somehow the city has survived, losing bits of its heritage here and there, but keeping most of it intact. And Keita, who descends from people who fled Timbuktu during the Moorish invasion, said that invaders over the centuries added their own touch to the fabled city. "You can still find Moorish-style windows in buildings throughout the town," he said. "Timbuktu has always had a genius for being able to absorb its invaders."

But the methodical aggression of groups like Ansar Dine don't bring with them architecture or history of their own. And there's much more than earthen tombs and mosques at risk. "The spirit of Islam goes back to the 10th century in this region," explains Keita. "They are killing the soul of Islam."