bp: Beyond Petroleum?

Sharon Beder


Citation: Sharon Beder, 'bp: Beyond Petroleum?' in Battling Big Business: Countering greenwash, infiltration and other forms of corporate bullying, edited by Eveline Lubbers, Green Books, Devon, UK, 2002, pp. 26-32.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications


In 2000 the transnational oil giant BP Amoco  rebranded  itself as "bp: beyond petroleum." The rebranding  was  part of an effort to portray BP as an energy  company,  not just an oil company: one that incorporated  solar  energy in its portfolio and was willing to move  away  from oil. BP replaced its logo with a vibrant  green-white-and-yellow sunburst named after  Helios,  the ancient Greek sun god. The logo was meant to  connote "commitment to the environment and solar  power" and promote the new bp "as the supermajor  of  choice for the environmentally-aware  motorist."[1]  The lower-case letters were chosen "because focus  groups say bp is friendlier than the old  imperialistic  BP," which stood for British Petroleum.[2]

 Along with its new name, bp launched a new line of  petrol station in the US, UK and Australia called  bp  connect, intended to "reposition BP Amoco, an  old-economy gas station giant, into a progressive,  environmentally friendly retailer."[3] Petrol is  just  one of many items for sale at the high-tech  stations,  which are equipped with solar panels.[4]

 This was not the first time BP had revamped its  logo  and appearance to improve its environmental image.  In  1989, as British Petroleum, it underwent a similar  makeover. At a cost of about ?100 million it  shortened  its name to BP, redesigned its logo and  refurbished  its petrol stations to promote a greener, more  socially responsible image. David Walton, head of  public relations, said BP's image was "a major  commercial and political asset. Like any asset, it  has  to be managed and looked after." [1] [5]

 This earlier attempt at reputation management met  with  ridicule in some quarters. Jolyon Jenkins wrote in  the  New Statesman and Society that BP, a  company  responsible for clearing large areas of rainforest  in  Brazil, responded to a rise in environmental  consciousness in the late 1980s with "a ?20  million  'reimaging campaign' in which it daubed all its  property in green paint and advertised its annual  report under the slogan 'Now We're Greener Than  Ever.'" [6] In 1990 BP had to apologize for an ad  campaign that claimed that its new unleaded petrol  caused no pollution. [7]

 It seems the new bp still likes green paint: its  petrol stations are to be painted in green, white and  yellow to symbolize environmental responsibility  and  the sun. But BP only really had its green claims  taken  seriously in 1997, when it left the Global  Climate  Coalition (GCC), a group of 50 corporations and  trade  associations that had been claiming global warming  was  unproven and action to prevent it unwarranted. In  several speeches that year, CEO John Browne argued  it  was time to act to prevent greenhouse warming  rather  than continue to debate whether it would occur.  [8]

 With this new stance on climate change, BP earned  a  reputation as an environmental progressive in an  industry that largely refused to accept the  likelihood  of global warming. Browne received praise from  environmental groups including Greenpeace.

 The question, though, is whether BP's move was an  indicator of environmental leadership or a cynical  attempt to manage its reputation. When BP  left  the GCC, it was receiving adverse publicity  because  of  its activities in Colombia. The dramatic break  with  other oil companies on the issue of global warming  provided a useful diversion as well as a  much-needed  refurbishment for a reputation under attack on  human  rights grounds. In 1997, amid favorable publicity  about its stance on global warming, BP's share  price  and profit rose.

 BP's dangerous bedfellows

 In 1996 BP was accused of human rights violations  in  Colombia, leading to damaging media publicity in  the  UK. Its Casanare oil field has oil reserves valued  at  approximately $40 billion. [9] The Colombian  government has a poor human rights record, and  both  the police and army are held responsible for  serious  abuses of human rights including extrajudicial  killings, forced disappearances, torture and  beatings.  These official security forces are much feared by  the  people, as are the right-wing paramilitary forces,  which appear to operate as death squads with  government impunity, attacking local protesters,  communities they suspect of being sympathetic to  guerrillas, and people they deem socially  undesirable,  such as prostitutes and street children.  Antigovernment guerrillas have also made enemies  among  the local population. Combined violence by  government  forces, the paramilitary and the guerrillas  resulted  in between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths in 1998 and  300,000  civilians being displaced from their homes. [10]

 BP's oil operations in Colombia have been a target  for  guerrillas who believe the oil industry should be  nationalized. BP has installed several layers of  preventative protection for its staff and  installations. Firstly, it depends on the  Colombian  army, which created a special brigade of 3,000  soldiers for the purpose. [11] In 1996, BP agreed  to  pay the Defense Ministry between $54 and 60  million  over three years to augment the battalion with 150  officers and 500 soldiers. [12]

 BP also depends on the police force, which patrols  the  perimeter of its facilities; the company pays ?3  million a year for the service. [13] In 1992 BP  hired  the British firm Defense Systems Limited (DSL),  which  set up a subsidiary Defense Systems Colombia (DSC)  for  its BP operations. [14] According to World in  Action's research, based on the testimony of former  DSL  officers and the police themselves, DSC has given  Colombian police "lethal military training" since  1996. [15]

 But critics say this physical security has come at  too  high a price in human rights abuses. BP has been  accused of forming its own army and of being  associated with state repression. The military  forces  that protect its assets in Colombia are said to  have  connections with the right-wing paramilitary. And  BP  has been accused of hiring security people with  past  histories of human rights abuses and even murder.  [16]

 The heavy security had troubling  implications for local people protesting about the  environmental impact of BP's operations. The  company  admitted to early environmental damage, as a  result  of  what Browne calls "honest mistakes" made before  local  regulations had been clarified rather than  "willful  and reckless mistakes." [17] BP's operations in  Colombia have caused problems including  deforestation,  pollution of crucial water sources, landslides,  earthquakes and ground contamination. World in  Action  pointed out, "The company which had gone into  Colombia  trumpeting the highest green standards was fined  $215,000 ? the biggest-ever environmental fine in  Colombian history." [18]

 "(M)embers of the local community involved in  legitimate protest against the impact of the oil  companies, including BP, have frequently been  labeled  subversive and subsequently been victims of human  rights violations by security forces and their  paramilitary allies," according to Amnesty  International. [19] Daniel Bland, a researcher  with  Human Rights Watch, said local people have  testified  that if there is "any kind of organized protest  against BP in any way, the leaders of those  protests  are singled out for persecution for harassment and  for  death threats." Such threats are taken very  seriously,  as six members of one group, the El Morro  Association, have been murdered since it began its  campaign against damage done by BP to their road  and  their water supply. [20]

 In March 1997 BP was cleared of human rights  abuses  by  a Colombian government inquiry. [1] However,  according  to  Blowout Magazine, the Special Commission  conducting the inquiry found the army brigade  protecting BP's assets guilty of "civilian  massacre,  extrajudicial execution, rape, kidnap and  torture." [21] Human Rights Watch also claims there have  been  "reports of killings, beatings and arrests  committed  by those forces responsible for protecting the  companies' installations."  [22] BP denies any responsibility for military  repression of anti-BP protesters and says it has  no  control over the soldiers it hires to defend its  Colombian sites. But Human Rights Watch argues  that  BP cannot avoid responsibility for human rights  violations committed by government forces in  defense  of its own interests. [23]

 Moreover, Richard Howitt, a British member of the  European parliament, obtained internal Colombian  government documents that stated BP had given the  Colombian military photographs, videos and other  information about peasant protesters concerned  about  environmental damage. The information had  allegedly  led to intimidation, beatings, disappearances and  deaths. [24] A former DSC adviser also told World  in  Action "about a controversial proposal by DSC to  set  up a spy network in Casanare to target anti-BP  protesters." [25]

 BP CEO John Browne responded, "We don't pass  materials  to the military...We have, as part of the  licensing  process, in order to produce evidence that we have  had  meetings on the environment, passed videotapes to  the  environmental department with the full knowledge  and  agreement of the community involved. That's the  extent  of it." [26]     Human Rights Watch noted that when the  contract  between the Colombian military and BP came up for  renewal in June 1999, the flow of funds was  altered  so  that rather than paying the army directly, BP paid  the  state-owned ECOPETROL, which in turn paid the  Defense  Ministry. It continued making direct payments to  the  police. [27]

 Old problem, new spin

 bp's activities in Colombia are not unusual: it  uses  armed security guards in several countries. Nor  are  human rights criticisms new to the company. BP  operated in South Africa during the apartheid  regime  and was considered an enemy by the international  anti-apartheid movement because it sold oil and  gas  to  the military and cooperated with local refineries  despite an international embargo. Its products  were  boycotted at the request of the NGO TransAfrica,  which  argued, "Without crude oil, the South African  government would stop working. So BP is keeping  the  apartheid government alive." [28]

 bp now features its human rights position  prominently  on its website (www.bp.com), and its executives  have  given many speeches to promote it, some to NGOs.  The  site says that everywhere the company operates it  establishes "clear ethical standards for ourselves  and  our contractors, ensuring that the whole of the  local  communities benefit from our presence."

In countries where human rights are at issue, BP  management claims it is better that it continue  its  operations. "Without development, and without  business," a BP executive told Amnesty  International,  "fundamental human rights cannot be secured. Far  from  being in conflict one is dependent upon the  other."  [29]

 Another executive told a 1997 Amnesty  International  conference in the UK that BP was "a force for  good"  in  Colombia: "Surely we should not deny Casanare the  development which is available to others." [30]  In  1998 Browne claimed it had spend $25 million in  Casanare since 1992 on the development of local  businesses, social housing, infrastructure and  training. This compared with $6 billion it had  invested in its own business operations in  Colombia.  [31] Meanwhile, "a company's obligation to provide  security for its staff is paramount." [32]

 But the company's arguments that its activities  contribute to better political and civil rights  are  not borne out by history. There is little evidence  that its years of operating in the Nigerian Delta,  Southwestern Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, Papua New Guinea,  Algeria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Aden have led  to  such progress. [33]

 Only the logo is green

 Certainly BP's record of environmental protection  has  been no better than other oil companies'. [34] In  1991  it was cited as most polluting company in the US  based  on EPA toxic release data. And in 1992 Greenpeace  International named it one of Scotland's two  largest  polluters. [35] Nor has it become a model company  since its apparent environmental conversion in  1997.  In 1999, it was charged with burning polluted  gases  at  its Ohio refinery and agreed to pay a $1.7 million  fine. [36] In July 2000 BP paid a $10 million  fine  to  the EPA and agreed to reduce air pollution coming  from  its US refineries by tens of thousands of tons.

 BP's existing and proposed activities in Alaska  have  worried indigenous people and environmental  groups.  "Between January 1997 and March 1998, BP Amoco was  responsible for 104 oil spills in America's  Arctic,"  according to US PIRG research. [37] In 1999 BP  admitted illegally dumping hazardous waste at its  "environmentally friendly" oil field in Alaska and  was  fined $500,000 for failing to report it. It paid  $6.5  million more in civil penalties to settle claims  associated with the waste's disposal. [38]

 bp has invested heavily in solar power and  introduced  a program to reduce its own greenhouse gas  emissions.  But despite its investment in solar energy, the  company remains committed to ever-increasing  production and usage of oil and gas. Director of  Policy David Rice told the Global Public Affairs  Institute in London, "We make no secret of our  intention to grow our core exploration and  production  business and to continue our search for new  sources  of  oil and gas." [39]

 And while bp has promised to reduce its own  emissions,  it does not accept the need to reduce those  arising  from the products it sells. Browne argues the  company's contribution is relatively small: "If  one  adds up the emissions from all of BP's operations  and  from all the products we sell, it comes to around  one  percent of the total emissions from human  activity."  [40] Yet this is a huge amount for one company to  be  responsible for, and certainly a more important  contribution than that of bp's own operations. By  1999  BP's emissions were greater than those of Central  America, Canada or Britain, according to Corporate  Watch. [41] And BP's recent acquisitions mean the  company is now thought to be responsible for about 3 percent of  worldwide greenhouse emissions.[42]

bp continues to explore for oil, often in  environmentally sensitive areas such as the  Atlantic  Frontier, the foothills of the Andes and Alaska.  bp's Northstar  project involves the first undersea pipeline in  the  Arctic, and the Army Corps of Engineers calculates  that "the total probability of one or more large  oil  spills...is approximately 11 percent to 24  percent"  during its 15-year lifetime. [43]

bp  is  seeking government permission to explore in the  Arctic  National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), one of Alaska's  last  remaining pristine wilderness areas, [44] through  lobbying and donating to politicians and  funding  the lobby group Arctic Power. [45] President George W. Bush pledged to open the Refuge to oil drilling during his election campaign. Congress will vote on this later in 2001. A new industry front group has been set up to campaign for drilling to be allowed, the Energy Stewardship Alliance, but it is essentially Arctic Power under a new  name. It is coordinated by Roger Herrera who also coordinated Arctic Power. Herrera is a former Manager of Operations for BP's Sohio Alaska Petroleum Company, now retired, and in 1997 was a paid lobbyist for BP America. [46]

 BP has emphasized its solar investments while  being  attacked for its Arctic exploration. In March 1999  it  launched its "Plug in the Sun" program based on  its  investment in solar energy and the installation of  solar panels on gas stations around the world. Its  ads  said, "We can fill you up by sunshine" ? but it  was  still gas people were putting in their cars. For  this  program it was awarded a Greenwash Award by  Corporate  Watch. [47] In a similar satirical vein,  Greenpeace  USA gave CEO Browne an award for the "Best  Impression  of an Environmentalist." [48]

 An investment in image

 It seems bp is investing more in image than  environment. Would a company spend hundreds of  millions of dollars in solar investment just to  enhance its reputation? Well, bp has already spent  that much just on its "beyond petroleum"  rebranding.  Research and preparation cost $7 million; bp planned to spend $200 million between 2000 and 2002  rebranding its facilities and changing signs and  stationery and another $400 million on advertising  its  gasoline and pushing the new logo.[49]

 In the end, despite bp's rhetoric about social  responsibility, triple bottom lines and  enlightened  self-interest, profits seem to count most. An oil  company might invest in solar energy and admit  that  global warming should be prevented, but it will do  all  it can to ensure it can go on drilling for fossil  fuels and expanding its markets for them.

References

1 William Maclean, "BP Goes Greener with 'Beyond  Petroleum' Rebrand," Planet Ark, July 25,  2000, (www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm?newsid=7577)

 2 Brian Hale, "BP Goes Green, Solar, Connected," Sydney Morning Herald, July 26, 2000, pp.  25-6.

 3 Kruti Trivedi, "BP Amoco Wants to Sell More Than  Gas  at its New Stations," The New York Times,  July  25, 2000.

 4 Andrew McKenzie and John Macleay, "Sun Rises on Greener BP," The Australian, July 26,  2000,  p.  1.

 5 Quoted in Philip Rawstorne, "BP Puts On New  'Public  Face' to Meet Challenges of the 1990s," The  Oil Daily, Feb. 6, 1989, p. 5.

 6 Jolyon Jenkins, "Who's the Greenest?" New  Statesman & Society, Aug. 17, 1990, pp. 18-20.

 7 Julie Gozan, "BP: A Legacy of Apartheid,  Pollution  and Exploitation," Multinational Monitor,  Vol.  13, No. 11, November 1992, pp. 26-30.

 8 Ernest A. Lowe and Robert J. Harris, "Taking  Climate Change Seriously: British Petroleum's  Business  Strategy," Corporate Environmental  Strategy,  Winter 1998 (www.indigodev.com/BPclim.html).

 9 Anon., "BP at War: Colombia," The  Economist, Vol. 344, No. 8026, July 19, 1997, pp.  32-4.

 10 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,  "Colombia Country Report on Human Rights Practices  for  1997," Department of State, 1998 (www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/1997_hrp_report/colombia.html); Bureau of  Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, "Colombia  Country  Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998,"  Department  of State, 1999, (www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/1998_hrp_report/colombia.html)

 11 "Colombia: BP's Secret Soldiers," World In  Action,  ITV, UK, June 30, 1997 (text at 
www.cdi.org/ArmsTradeDatabase/CONTROL/Small_Arms/Mercenaries/BP's_Secret_Soldiers.txt).

 12 Cited in "Oil Companies Buying Up Colombian  Army  to Fight Pipeline Violence," Drillbits &  Tailings, September 1996, p. 2; Human Rights  Committee, "Colombia," Office of the United  Nations  High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1997  (www.hri.ca/fortherecord1997).

 13 "Colombia: BP's Secret Soldiers."

 14 Michael Sean Gillard and Melissa Jones, "BP's  Secret Soldiers," Weekly Mail & Guardian,  July  4, 1997 (web.sn.apc.org/wmail).

 15 "Colombia: BP's Secret Soldiers."

 16 "BP at War: Colombia," pp. 32-34.

 17 Quoted in Polly Ghazi and Ian Hargreaves,  "BP's  Chief Executive is Making the Running on Green  Strategy," New Statesman, Vol. 126,  No. 4341,  July 4, 1997, pp. 34-7.

 18 "Colombia: How Green is Your Petrol?"; Athan  Manuel, "Green Words, Dirty Deeds: A PIRG Expose  of  BP  Amoco's Greenwashing," US Public Interest Research  Group (PIRG) Education Fund, 1999; "Colombian  Government Report Accuses BP of Involvement in  Environmental and Human Rights Abuses," Drillbits & Tailings, Nov. 7, 1996, p. 4.

 19 Amnesty International, "Colombia: British  Petroleum Risks Fueling Human Rights Crisis Though  Military Training," Amnesty International, 1997  (www.web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf).

 20 "Colombia: BP's Secret Soldiers."

 21 "Colombia: The Role of BP," Blowout  Magazine, January 1998, (www.oilc.org/BO53/BO53colombia.html).

 22 Human Rights Watch, "Special Issues and  Campaigns:  Corporations and Human Rights," 1999 
(www.igc.org/hrw/worldreport99/special/corporations.html).

 23 Ghazi and Hargreaves, pp. 34-37; "Colombia:  BP's  Secret Soldiers"; Peter Eisen, "Group Pressures  Oxy,  BP on Human Rights," The Oil Daily, Vol. 48, No. 76, April 22, 1998, p. NA(1).

 24 "BP at war: Colombia," pp. 32-34; Human Rights  Committee.

 25 "Colombia: BP's Secret Soldiers."

 26 Quoted in Ghazi and Hargreaves, pp. 34-37.

 27 Human Rights Watch.

 28 Gozan, pp. 26-30.

 29 Peter Sutherland, "Amnesty International  Event,"1997 speech (www.bp.com).

 30 Richard Newton, "Business and Human Rights,"  1997  speech (www.bp.com).

 31 John Browne, "The Case for Social  Responsibility,"  1998 speech (www.bp.com).

 32 "BP's Submission to the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee," BP, 2000  (www.bp.com/alive/performance/social_performance/ethical_conduct_commitment/human_rights/foreign.asp).

 33 James Bamberg, [*ITAL] The History of the  British  Petroleum Company. Volume 2 The Anglo-Iranian  Years,  1928-1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1994);  James Bamberg, British Petroleum and  Global  Oil, 1950-1975. Volume 3 The Challenge of Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge  University  Press, 2000).

 34 "BP to Pay Damages in California Spill," Oil and Gas Journal, Vol. 93, No. 7, Feb. 13,  1995,  p. 32; Manuel, pp. 11-12; "Salvage Will Show Toll  from  Tanker Spill," Business Insurance, Vol.  25,  No. 30, July 29, 1991, p. 45; Gozan, pp. 26-30;  "European Plants Dwarf US in Toxics," Chemical  Marketing Reporter, Vol. 242, No. 5, Aug. 3,  1992,  p. 5.

35Manuel, p. 12.

36Gozan, pp. 26-30.

 37Manuel, p. 7.

 38 Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, "Enemies  of  the Future: The Ten Worst Corporations of 2000," Multinational Monitor, December 2000, p.  12.

 39 David Rice, "Corporate Responsibility in the  Marketplace," 1999 speech (www.bp.com).

 40 E.J.P. Browne, "Energy Companies and the  Environment Can Coexist," USA Today, Vol. 127, No. 2640, September 1998, pp. 54-56.

 41Kenny Bruno, "Summer Greenwash Award: BP  Amoco's  'Plug in the Sun' Program," Corporate Watch, 1999  (www.igc.org/trac).

 42Manuel, p. 8.

 44Gozan, pp. 26-30.

 45 SANE BP, "The Resolution," 2000  (www.sanebp.com).

46 Energy Stewardship Alliance, "Energy Stewardship Alliance Formed; National Support for ANWR Exploration Grows", PR Newswire, March 21 2000, (biz.yahoo.com/prnews/010321/dcw030.html); Bob Costantini, "Where The Caribou Roam: The Arctic Oil Debate Heats Up", evote.com, March 2001, (www.evote.com/features/2001-03/caribou.asp); The Center for Responsive Politics, "Herrera, Roger Charles", 1997, (http://www.opensecrets.org/lobbyists/97profiles/10779.htm).

 46 Quoted in Manuel, p. 11; Danielle Knight, “USA: Mixed Reaction to Oil Co's Earth Day Award”, Corporate Watch,
 (www.igc.org/trac/corner/worldnews/other/366.html),1999.

 47 Bruno.

 48 Greenpeace, "We Laughed! We Cried! But Mostly  We  Cried!" April 22, 1999 (www.greenpeaceusa.org).

 49 Natalie Noor-Drugan, “BP Amoco reverts to BP, launches massive brand campaign”, Chemical Week, Vol. 162, August 2, 2000, p. 16; "BP Amoco unveils new  global  brand to drive growth," BP Press Release, July 24,  2000; Advertising Age, Sept. 18, 2000, and  Campaign, Oct. 13, 2000.


Professor Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb