Politics & Policy

BP: Beyond Publicity

Ignore the 'green' marketing campaign; BP is still a petroleum company.

Nobody has better exploited the iconography of shallow environmentalism than British Petroleum, which — with a big assist from the same political spin-masters that brought you the Democratic party — has spent vast sums over the past decade trying to convince the credulous that it is something, anything, other than what it has always been: a tremendously successful for-profit petroleum company.

For the first century of its existence, BP behaved more or less as one would expect: hero to capitalists, black hat to social-justice types, and relentless profit-seeker for its shareholders. Founded in 1901 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the firm held a monopoly on Iranian crude for 50 years, and its shrewd management and voice in the British Parliament helped it maintain a strong position in Iran through the 1953 coup and the emergence of Khomeini in ’79. Beginning in the 1960s, the newly monikered British Petroleum Country went global, expanding its turf from Alaska to Trinidad, Russia to Vietnam. In the 1980s and ’90s, a series of aggressive acquisitions — Atlantic Richfield, Amoco, Burmah Castrol, the orphans of post-breakup Standard Oil — grew BP into one of the largest of the “supermajors” — a vertically integrated energy powerhouse that found the oil, drilled it, transported it, refined it, and pumped it into the fuel tanks of a grateful world.

Then, something strange happened. The fallout from the Exxon Valdez spill and the popularization of the gospel of global warming meant that by the mid-1990s, environmentalism was no longer the preserve of longhairs and activists. It had taken root in the consciences and conspicuous consumption of those yuppie-hippie hybrids that David Brooks famously dubbed the Bobos, just as that group consolidated its grip on political and cultural power in America. In this brave new world, where one’s choice of walking shoe and frozen custard reflected cherished philosophical convictions, it was suddenly profitable to be, or to be perceived as, “green.” BP’s longtime chairman Lord John Browne was among the first and most successful titans of industry to recognize and exploit this new potential revenue stream.

In 1999, Browne’s BP acquired the 50 percent stake it did not already own in the solar company Solarex (it had previously operated the company in partnership with an obscure energy trader called Enron). For a paltry $45 million, BP glommed on to Solarex’s 30 years of experience in the sector and styled itself the largest solar company in the world. The move would prove prologue to a massive corporate re-branding effort the next year, a $200 million blitz spearheaded by the Mad Men–inspiring ad wizards at Ogilvy & Mather and underwritten by the social-scientific spinners at Stanley Greenberg’s consultancy, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR).

With questions mounting about both the Obama administration’s response to the Gulf spill and the cozy regulatory conditions that led up to it, Greenberg’s name and BP connection have become a topic of interest in the blogosphere, as he and wife Rep. Rose DeLauro (D., Conn.) let Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel live rent-free, for five years, in a D.C. apartment they owned.

But Greenberg’s ties to the political Left go much deeper than that. GQR’s client list was and is an almanac of left-leaning organizations and politicos both in the United States and abroad — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and half the congressional Democratic caucus; the AFL-CIO and AFSCME; British Labour and democratic-socialist parties from Albania to Pakistan. And thanks in large part to the success of its BP efforts, GQR now represents a good number of energy companies (Alleghany Power, Nevada Power, Pacific Gas and Electric) and other beleaguered corporations facing uphill PR climbs (General Motors, anyone?). Greenberg was also the man who advised congressional Democrats to sell a carbon cap-and-trade system, of the kind championed by Browne and BP (and Enron!), as a “green jobs” bill — an inconvenient truth for an Obama administration keen on casting BP as a villain in its push for a carbon-tax regime.

In its BP “case study,” which has since been removed from the GQR website (though you can find a cached version here), the company takes credit for helping BP “improve its market position by re-branding itself as a company focused on transcending the energy-environment paradox and developing renewable and low-carbon energy sources.”

Greenberg’s efforts zeroed in on the company’s profile in the United States and targeted the big fish, “including energy experts, opinion formers, investors, NGO leaders, journalists, political elites, and consumers.” British Petroleum officially shortened its name to BP, unveiled its “Beyond Petroleum” motto, and ditched its iconic shield logo for a warm-and-fuzzy green sunburst. Browne went to Stanford University and called for an end to hydrocarbons. The company publicly acknowledged the risks of global climate change. It even sponsored the reintroduction of bald eagles to the island of Manhattan.

As part of its re-launch campaign, BP erected a massive billboard in Times Square that read: “Solar, Natural Gas, Wind, Hydrogen. And Oh Yes, Oil.” But BP’s alternative energy generation was miniscule then and remains so now. The company currently produces about 2.03 gigawatts of solar and 1.2 gigawatts of wind power annually in a market that, by its own estimates, will top out at about 12 gigawatts in 2012. For context, total global electricity generation in 2008 was 20,201.8 terawatts, or more than 20 million gigawatts. Moreover, BP’s alternative-energy efforts may be taking a step backward. Facing a global collapse in solar prices during the recession, in April BP solar completed a year-long restructuring process that saw it lay off most of its U.S. workforce.

Consider these numbers: Since 2005, BP has invested, on average, about $500 million per year in alternative energy. Its annual budget for new oil exploration, not including the vast preponderance of its resources devoted to exploiting existing assets, stands at roughly $1 billion.

But the sound and the fury of the re-branding worked, even if it signified little. Sure, BP continues to acquire alternative-energy assets at the margins — a wind farm here, a biofuel developer there — but its emergence at the top of the Fortune rankings was driven, as ever, by the aggressive pursuit of petroleum, particularly in challenging climates like the deep-water fields off America’s Gulf coast. “Beyond Petroleum” they are manifestly not.

– Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.


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