It was a speech heard round the world, so to speak. The place was Stanford University in California, the year was 1997, and the topic was climate change. The speaker, perhaps surprisingly for some, was John Browne, BP group chief executive.
By the end of his remarks, Lord Browne had become the first CEO of a major energy company to acknowledge the global risks of climate change. He also said BP had a part to play in the solution and outlined some of the steps the company planned to take.
A sceptic may have wondered why an oil and gas company executive would take such an environmentally conscious stand. But BP’s willingness to confront environmental issues had been shaped by a long learning process that stretched across several decades.
Pollution becomes a big issue in Europe
In the early part of the 20th century, the industry’s effects on the natural environment didn’t feature on many boardroom agendas. Sadly that may have included Anglo-Persian, the company that later became BP. When commissioners in Wales complained that waste from the company’s Llandarcy refinery had contaminated a river estuary, Anglo-Persian’s invoked an earlier agreement with the local council and asked them to clean it up.
But the company soon changed its approach and started monitoring water quality on the Welsh coast. Over the years, air and water monitoring became routine at Llandarcy, and BP took pollution more and more seriously as an issue. By the 1960s pollution was firmly on the company’s agenda. A new Anti-Pollution Advisory Group looked at the causes and effects of pollution in urban settings. BP helped organize an industry group focused on cutting pollution at refineries. And BP research in the UK led to the development of pollution-preventing insulation techniques for chimneys, including the tall stacks used at refineries.
Then in 1967 Europe got an environmental wake-up call when a tanker ran aground off Land’s End, England, spilling 117,000 tonnes of crude into the English Channel. Everyone, including the oil industry, had been unprepared for a clean-up operation on such a large scale. Alarmed by the risks, BP opened an Oil Spill Research Centre, where researchers developed new technologies including BP 1100, a non-toxic dispersant that could be used to clean up beaches.
A deep, natural passion for preserving the environment
At the very end of the 1960s, after years of searching, BP found a vast oil field under the North Slope of Alaska. The tundra setting was breathtakingly beautiful and ecologically invaluable. It was an iconic place for America’s new environmental campaigners. BP quickly found that in addition to oil it had tapped into a vast national debate.
To understand the issues better, BP flew Bryan Sage, a biologist, and the noted British naturalist Sir Peter Scott to Alaska to report on the ecological and environmental implications of the proposed works. Congress had recently passed the Environmental Protection Act, which required that a new kind of official document be compiled assessing every potential impact to the natural environment in thorough detail.
The experience in Alaska was transformational for BP. From then on, no major BP project anywhere would proceed until an EPA-style environmental impact assessment had been carried out.
The company had come to view environmental openness and caution as sound business strategy. Furthermore, BP had discovered among its employees a deep, natural passion for respecting and preserving the environment.
In 1970 BP founded an Environmental Control Centre to explore the policy and science of environmental issues. That same year, the company produced two films about industry and the environment: ‘The Shadow of Progress’ and ‘The Energy About Us’.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, environmental concerns were increasingly core to BP’s culture. A course on ecological monitoring became part of BP’s employee training package. The department that looked after health and safety added the environment to its remit. Then in the mid-1990s BP’s chairman, Robert Horton, said he wanted BP to be a leader not just in business but also in environmental protection. Not long after that the company adopted an ambitious goal intended to guide everything BP did from then on: ‘No accidents, no harm to people, no damage to the environment.’
Increasing scientific evidence about the threat of global warming would soon test that last phrase on an unforeseen scale.
A step beyond petroleum
Lord Browne’s climate change speech at Stanford was weighted with realism. “It would be unwise and potentially dangerous,” he said, “to ignore the mounting concern.” But he also cautioned that no single organisation or country could fix the problem of global warming on its own. He pledged that BP would build on its environmental legacy and take some bold, new steps.
As a decade ended and a new millennium began, BP announced one initiative after another – small and large – designed to reduce its own carbon emissions and help shape future alternative forms of energy.
Cleaner-burning fuels went on sale at BP stations, and the stations got solar panels for generating clean electricity on site. BP’s solar business got a boost through acquisitions and expansion. In 2001, BP announced the largest solar project in the world at the time, bringing electricity to 150 Philippine villages.
In late 2005 BP announced that it had formed BP Alternative Energy, a multi-billion-dollar business focused on low-carbon power. At the launch, Lord Browne called Alternative Energy “a step beyond our traditional business, beyond petroleum, to meet the energy needs of the world over the next half century.”