The Corner

Anything But An Oil Company

Jonah, back during the Deepwater Horizon fiasco, when I wasn’t busy urging the federal government to nuke the well (and it would have worked, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling bureaucrats!), I was writing about BP’s theretofore successful rebranding campaign as a green-friendly energy company set on moving “Beyond Petroleum.” The short version is that the PR problem for BP was both caused and (for a tidy profit) solved by a bunch of BoBo Democrats.

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. . . .

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.

Full thing here.


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