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.