During the years 2004-07, I had the opportunity to meet a couple of key individuals from BP in the context of an international sustainability consortium. One was Duncan Eggar, who was responsible for defining future transport trends, and then later, Vivienne Cox who was on her way to becoming, the CEO of BP Alternative Energy. I heard them speak on multiple occasions and watched a number of presentations, and came away not only impressed with the caliber of these individuals, but also with the company and its commitment to sustainability. Here was a very large company, in the process of re-imagining itself as Beyond Petroleum, that had looked unblinkingly into the future, and truly grasped the fact that things need to change dramatically very soon.
BP made huge investments in solar energy and after a series of acquisitions became the largest maker of solar panels in the world. Genuinely impressed and inspired, I went out and bought some BP stock.
Lord John Browne, then-CEO of the company, said in a 2006 lecture entitled, The Purpose of Business, that, “Any successful business is part of society, and exists to meet society’s needs.” He was the first oil company chief to publicly acknowledge the reality of human induced global warming, saying, in a later speech, “I believe the judgment on the science of climate change on the basis of the available evidence is now beyond reasonable contradiction… To do nothing, to live in denial, to pass the problem to another generation – will increase the cost of the action and will increase the risk that the action comes too late.”
However, a couple of years later, Browne had departed under a personal scandal, and the company began to shift its emphasis. An article in Ethical Corporation said, “Climate change no longer seems to be high on the oil giant’s agenda, based on the level to which BP’s Sustainability Review 2008 skips over green efforts to concentrate instead on day-to-day operational performance.”
It’s also worth mentioning that both of the individuals from BP, who had so impressed me a few years back, have also left the company to pursue other interests.
The company has been plagued in the intervening years by a series of disastrous incidents including:
- An explosion at a Texas City refinery in March 2005 that killed 15 workers.
- Lobbying for the opening of ANWR and the shutdown of a major Alaskan pipeline in August 2006 due to pipeline corrosion.
- In October 2007, it paid $303 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it had fixed prices on the propane market.
- Problems with the cracking underwater pipes at the Thunder Horse platform in the Gulf of Mexico which delayed the onset of production which continues to fall short of expectations.
Yet, despite this continual progression of “bad luck,” the company has continued to oppose regulations that would have required stricter standards for safety and environmental protection.
It is clearly not yet “Beyond Petroleum.” I find myself wondering if BP, in fact, wishes it were just now. But then, considering the $26.4 billion in profits on the $239 billion it took in revenues last year, mostly from fossil fuels, it might be hard to say.
Regulators at the Minerals Management Service , an arm of the Dept. of Interior, who along with the Dept. of Energy has enjoyed alarmingly cozy relations with the entire oil industry, had been urging oil companies operating offshore to install backup systems to prevent catastrophic blowouts such as the one that occurred last month off the coast of Louisiana. The operative word here is “urging” which clearly should have been “requiring.”
I happened to be down in Louisiana during the week following the explosion. It was pretty much all people were talking about. Their focus was primarily on the impact the spill would have on fishing in the gulf. Just about everyone I met down there either works in the seafood industry, enjoys recreational fishing or eats seafood as a favorite past time.
In case you’re wondering, when I returned home, I sold half of my BP stock. I guess that might be my way of saying that there might still be half a company worth believing in, though I’ll be watching carefully.