How Green Is BP?

  1. Last March, Lord John Browne, the group chief executive of the British oil giant BP, gave a speech at Stanford University. Had you stumbled into the auditorium partway through, you might be forgiven for assuming the man at the podium was not an oil baron, an industrialist, an extractor of fossil fuels from the tender earth but an environmentalist of the high church calling for the abolition of hydrocarbons, the very substance that had made his company and himself so fabulously rich. His subject was global climate change—in particular, the process by which humans, by burning oil and gas, have been slowly, perhaps irreversibly, warming the earth’s atmosphere. And instead of hewing to the line of industry, instead of calling (as President Bush and the head of Exxon Mobil have) for caution and further research, he said, “I believe the American people expect a company like BP … to offer answers and not excuses.” He also said, “Climate change is an issue which raises fundamental questions about the relationship between companies and society as a whole, and between one generation and the next.” He even said, “Companies composed of highly skilled and trained people can’t live in denial of mounting evidence gathered by hundreds of the most reputable scientists in the world.”

    Around the time Browne was at Stanford, sounding strikingly unlike an oil executive, BP was trying its own kind of identity shift, sounding strikingly unlike an oil company. Two years earlier, at a cost of $200 ...