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Stronger and Safer? BP’s 2011 Sustainability Review

RP Siegel | Wednesday April 18th, 2012 | 7 Comments

BP really wants to be considered one of the good guys. You can practically feel the eagerness saturating every page of their new 2011 Sustainability Review. But like a lion showing up at a vegetarian restaurant they don’t seem to realize that whatever their soft-hearted intentions might be, they cannot get away from their true nature, which is that of a fossil fuel giant.

Fossil fuels will be a necessary evil for the immediately foreseeable future. By delivering these fuels to us, BP is performing a service that many of us literally could not live without. And it appears that they are trying to do it in as responsible a manner as they possibly can.

But, responsibility, while admirable, is not the same as sustainability. Fossil fuels are, by definition, inherently unsustainable in several ways. First, they are finite and non-renewable. Their use is rapidly driving our entire planet towards an unsurvivable condition for a very large number of its inhabitants, quite possibly including us. Finally there is no way to extract these fossil fuels from their ancient burial grounds without inflicting significant damage to the surrounding area as was amply demonstrated back in 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The company has had an abysmal safety record for years. But then, to be fair, it is an inherently risky and difficult business.

In this year’s report they devote  a good deal of print explaining, in a contrite tone, all they have done to clean up the Gulf of Mexico and help the communities that line the coast. They have paid reparations, they have worked in wildlife remediation, they have invested heavily in the seafood and tourism industries, doing much to resuscitate the Gulf economy, lest they have that meltdown added to the heavy load already on their conscience. (It appears that the region is making a strong comeback.)

Then, they go on to tell us all the things that they are going to do to ensure that this will never happen again: they are beefing up safety procedures and re-thinking every aspect of their deep water operations. Promises, promises, but we all know that stuff happens. Nuclear was supposed to be super-safe too.

I don’t mean to suggest that they are insincere when they say these things or when they talk about the positive and negative impacts of oil & gas development on neighboring communities. I believe that the men and women at BP want to be a force for good and it shows.

Whether they are working with Inuits along the shores of the Beaufort Sea or local villagers in Indonesia, where they produce natural gas to help minimize the impact of their operations, it shows.

It shows in the way that they have learned to design facilities to minimize harm to sensitive environments like structures to isolate heated oil pipelines from permafrost, which might otherwise melt, releasing large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2.

It shows in the way they screen potential drilling sites for potential environmental and social impacts, like, for example, a gas project in Oman, where they discovered that process water would become contaminated with salt unless they took extra steps to avoid this

It shows in the way they are working with environmental groups and government officials, or participating in the Tread Lightly program with Natural Value Initiative, or training employees in marine science, so that they can be more aware of the impact of their offshore operations.

But there is a fundamental difference between doing less harm and being sustainable.

And while they can’t help the fact that they got on an unsustainable path before anyone recognized how unsustainable it was, what comes through loud and clear in the report is the fact that they are still completely committed to that path.

They say that they don’t believe that the IPCC’s 450ppm GHG scenario will be achieved by 2030 and that in their view, fossil fuels will still account for 80% of all energy consumed at that time. (It is 87% today). So, since there is apparently nothing we can do about that, we might as well drill baby drill. They have already returned to the Gulf of Mexico where they are once again drilling with gusto, holding the whole nation hostage, it would appear, with threat of higher prices at the pump.

Over the long term, they tell us, “it is likely that the carbon intensity of parts of our business will increase. In our upstream operations this is because we expect to move farther into technically difficult and potentially more energy-intensive areas. The intensity of certain refining operations may also increase with the trend towards processing heavier crudes, which requires more energy.”

In other words, their future plans include ramping up their involvement in Canadian oil sands, perhaps the most environmentally damaging energy source, yet, where they have 50-75% interest in three major projects, one of which is already under construction. Perhaps the name for that endeavor should be “Beneath Petroleum.”

And then, of course let us not forget their adventures in the Arctic.

The one area where BP might actually change paths and do something truly sustainable is renewables. This gets about a page and a half in the 52 page report. They are closing down their solar business, but continue to expand and invest in wind and biofuels. Their involvement in wind is primarily as an investor. But they are a bit more involved in biofuels, which they claim could account for as much as 23% of incremental global demand in the period from 2010-30.  This is down from the 30% estimate in last year’s report. Other than that, little has changed. They did acquire two biofuel companies in 2011, Tropical BioEnergia S.A. and ethanol producer Companhia Nacional de Açúcar e Álcool. All together they invested $1.6 billion in renewables last year out of  their $384 billion in total revenue.

For me, the bottom line is this: we are heading, rather quickly towards a cliff. Once we go over that cliff,  life will be far more difficult. Sustainability means reversing direction. Going towards the cliff more slowly might buy us a little time but is not sustainability.  And it’s not clear that BP is even doing that in the ways that matter most.

 

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • TedKidd

    Since increasing and volatile price of oil means greater profits, peak oil projects out to be a huge windfall for big oil. Creating alternatives only waters that opportunity down.

  • Antonio

    I don’t find the logical consistency of this post at all clear. You seem to be arguing simultaneously that:

    1. we need energy delivered from fossil fuels;
    2. delivering energy from fossil fuels is unsustainable by definition;
    3. thus any company that delivers the essential service of (1) is to be criticised on the basis of (2).
    It seems that according to your own logic there’s no way a company can win: to gain your approval it would need to be sustainable but by definition it could do that only by failing to provide the service you regard say is essential. Isn’t this a case of the market transferring the blame? In effect it seems the consumer is saying, “I want your the fuel you deliver but I will then blame you for providing it to me”.

    • RP Siegel

       Antonio, Sustainability is about tomorrow and the next ten thousand years. Fossil fuels are about today. BP is delivering an essential service, but its not a sustainable one.
      It’s not my logic that’s twisted here; it’s the logic of the situation. We need lots of energy today to function, but the way we are getting it is destroying the planet and us.
      There is no way an energy company can win, or that we can win, for that matter, not in the long run, unless we become sustainable. BP had, at one time, acted like they wanted to help us get there, but they have changed their ways and, for the most part, shifted their focus back to the short term.

  • Antonio

    Thank you for your response. However, it doesn’t seem to me to have genuinely untangled the logical knots. Though you clearly acknowledge that there are two time periods here, the underlying logic of the argument elides them.

    Try this mental experiment. Supposing BP (and other fossil fuel companies) were to cease production now. One could argue that would be sustainable (though, incidentally, only if one defines sustainability in purely environmental terms – it clearly wouldn’t be sustainable for anyone economically or socially). But whether or not it would be the sustainable thing to do, by the terms of your own logic it would be disastrous (as you say, energy from fossil fuels is essential).

    The point is that the capacity to sustain ourselves from other energy sources does not yet exist. It would therefore be unreasonable to expect anyone (BP or anyone else) to act as if it already did.

    The logical problem here expresses itself too in your use of the word ‘or’: ‘there is no way an energy company can win, or that we can win, for that matter’. As I pointed out in my initial comment, the end user is as complicit as any energy producer here. Like it or not, that puts everyone on the same side of the argument: in logical terms, your ‘we’ is not in contradistinction from BP, it includes BP.

  • Robert

    Antonio, its not about only having energy through fossil fuels or a sustainble medium. The idea is for current energy companies, like BP to use fossil fuels to fuel today but be working through R + D to deveop the new fuels of the future.

  • Antonio

    Thank you, Robert. When you write, “it’s not about”, you don’t say what the pronoun “it” refers to. Do you mean the original post – or what?

    If the original post, I note it reads as follows: “But like a lion showing up at a vegetarian restaurant they don’t seem to realize that whatever their soft-hearted intentions might be, they cannot get away from their true nature, which is that of a fossil fuel giant.” If that sentence doesn’t mean to criticise BP by virtue of the company being a fossil fuel producer, I don’t know what it does mean. And if that is indeed what it means, I refer you to the point above: 
    In effect it seems the consumer is saying, “I want your the fuel you deliver but I will then blame you for providing it to me”.

    • RP Siegel

       Antonio, I don’t see it as criticizing BP for being who they are and doing what they do (any more than one would criticize a leopard for having spots). You fail to mention that I also praise them for many of their efforts to behave responsibly. I do take exception with them referring to themselves as sustainable, and like Robert, above, I fault them for not doing more to lead the transition to renewables. By doing what they do, and doing it well, I agree with your earlier point, that they are enabling us to continue down an unsustainable path, a path that all of us must take responsibility for. I should also mention that there are also a number of ways in which they have behaved irresponsibly, which I have written about before and very likely will again.