John Browne’s Resurrection and Climate Change

Ever heard of Lord John Browne, Baron Browne of Madringly?

In May, 2007, Lord Browne abruptly resigned as CEO of the oil company BP, after he was outed by a tabloid newspaper. With tales of a greedy lover juicing up the media, he decided to throw in the towel. It cost him $30 million in stock options and retirement benefits.

Up to that point, John Browne had been a company man, a lifer, who joined BP in 1966 as an apprentice and worked his way to the top. He was there when British Petroleum became BP, and turned the company into the fourth largest corporation in the world. He stayed out of the limelight, partly to hide the fact that he was gay.

Although professionally respected, Browne was privately the butt of jokes and speculation. He was small in stature, and employees who didn’t like him nicknamed him “elf,” short for evil little f_____.

He was also ridiculed by peers — for embracing climate change.

“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.” John Browne, 2002.

At a time when other executives called global warming a hoax, he rebranded BP as “Beyond Petroleum,” supported the Kyoto climate treaty, vowed to cut BP’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10%, and invested $500 million in solar power.

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Lord John Browne, behind the podium to the right of Tony Blair, 2006 Climate Change conference organized by The Climate Group, hosted by BP. Photo Credit: The Climate Group, courtesy of Flickr.com

Environmentalists were skeptical, saying BP’s green makeover was a cover for an unflattering environmental track record. The $500 million dedicated to solar power, for instance, was dwarfed by the $8.4 billion spent in 2004 for oil exploration and production. The company joined those who lobbied hard to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Grizzy bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Judith Slein, courtesy of Flickr.com
Grizzy bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Judith Slein, courtesy of Flickr.com

Instead of pretending to go green, said others, Browne should have been paying more attention to maintenance.

Above, 2005 explosion at a BP Texas refinery, killing 15 and injuring 170. Also under Browne’s watch: 2006 pipeline failure Prudhoe Bay, which spilled millions of gallons of oil.

BP’s stock value sank. John Browne was exposed, and eased out.

Oil executives were by then acknowledging that the cheap and easy oil was gone, but they weren’t interested in wind and solar. The consensus was that demand would rise ad infinitum, and that the smartest thing to do was invest heavily in the oil that is difficult, dangerous and dirty to extract. Browne’s successor at BP, Tony Hayward, doubled down on fracking, tar sands extraction and deep water drilling.

“Some may question whether so much of the [energy] growth needs to come from fossil fuels, … but here it is vital that we face up to the harsh reality …  we still foresee 80% of energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030.” Tony Hayward at MIT, 2009.
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Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Photo credit: DVIDSHUB, via Flickr.com. After the 2010 Deep Water Horizon spill, BP was banned from bidding on new leases in the Gulf of Mexico for four years.

Meanwhile, John Browne moved on with the same vigor he’d demonstrated at BP. He encouraged gay entrepreneurs and published a book, The Glass Closet. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, installed as President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He kept his hand in the oil business too.

Cuadrilla protestors
T.V. coverage of protests over fracking by Cuadrilla Resources, of which Browne is Chairman. Photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams, courtesy of Flickr.com

Fast forward to 2015.

The bet on dirty oil was wildly successful. World oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, and profits were, for awhile, staggering.

But — surprise. Prices today are half what they were a year ago, and may not rise again anytime soon. Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) predicts “slower demand will continue for the next decade.” One of the reasons? People everywhere are waking up to the threat posed by climate change.

Oil companies have laid off workers. Shell dropped plans for a petrochemical plant in Qatar. Chevron set aside a proposal to to drill in the Arctic seas. Norway’s Statoil changed its mind about drilling in Greenland.

Of course, this could all change if prices climb again. Still, we have a pause, a breather in the mad dash for oil.

And Lord Browne? Whether or not he was serious in 1999, he’s still sounding the alarm about global warming. Climate science is settled, he recently declared, but “this conclusion is not accepted by many in our industry, because they do not want to acknowledge an existential threat to their business.”

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“Resource extraction” in Texas. Photo Source: Amy Youngs, courtesy of Flickr.com

The battles continue. Old school oil executives vilify Browne, as do environmentalists, but my, how things have changed.

Eight years ago, one of the most powerful executives on the planet was trying to hide his sexual orientation, and climate change was mostly relegated to the back section of the papers. Now executives, congressmen and sports stars are proudly coming out; and climate change has moved from the back to the front pages. The world oil market is flooded, partly because — who would have guessed? — demand has slowed.

Is John Browne courageous or opportunistic? Does it matter? More important: Are we finally ready to begin the painful process of weaning ourselves from oil?

18 comments

  • I remember the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, but never took the time to dig any deeper. Thanks for bringing us up to speed a bit 🙂

    For us, I guess the motives don’t matter as much as the fact that someone from the fossil fuel business is (and in John Browne’s case has been speaking) out about climate change, like the recent Rockefeller divestment.

    We’ve been focusing in homeschool on weather vs. climate, and it’s still startling how much we (in our part of the US at least) are in the grip of a weather mindset. Our local paper here in Wyoming has articles almost daily on some side effect of climate change, from the fire season in Jackson Hole starting in March to the reduced snowpack feeding rivers out of the Rockies that will undoubtedly worsen droughts in states like California. However, the story never gets beyond the frame of isolated events (weather) to puts things in the context of larger patterns and the why?(climate),

    The low price of oil and gasoline definitely caught us off guard once we started driving again after being without a car for a year. The breather is definitely encouraging from the producer side, but it can take away much of the urgency from the consumer side to rethink the addiction to fossil fuel. Hopefully the continued voices of people like John Browne and the mountain of anecdotal “weather” reporting will offset apathy and keep the sense of urgency right where it needs to be.

    Liked by 2 people

  • We do have a long way to go as a country, and I admit, I’m grasping at straws. My own life is energy-steeped. Cutting back and changing is hard when the whole country is gleefully burning gas by the billions of barrels. For me, it’s one tiny step at a time, and I mean pitifully tiny. So exciting to read about you and your children, looking at the world in a whole new way.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Many thanks for this very informative and superbly written article. I have no idea what the answer to your closing question may be, though the car industry does seem to be moving inexorably toward electric power. One might imagine this taking very much longer in the aviation industry, certainly as regards long haul flying. With the oil producing regions of the Middle East having a very uncertain future [ISIS/Iran/Saudi – all in conflict] to say the least, then it may well not be slowing demand that determines the price of oil, but regional conflicts and power struggles. More reliance on Russian gas for Europe? That would seem a highly unreliable fall-back. We must have sustainable alternatives, and what are they to be so long as we continue to worship at the altar of growth?

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  • Many environmentalists believe we cannot solve climate change without undergoing a change in consciousness, or at least a change in our economic system. Growth indeed. We are pitted against ourselves — needing to provide for our families in the most economical way, but at the same time needing to recognize that what’s cheapest often means someone, somewhere is underpaid, or probably is pushing environmental costs down the road. I don’t know what those sustainable alternatives will be, either.

    Liked by 1 person

  • A wonderfully interesting read, JB. I’ve been drawn to research about alternative energy sources since I was a thirteen-year-old girl and chose to do a multi-month school project on solar energy and the future of food. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who drove me to meet with many folks at other institutions who were just beginning to collect some interesting data.
    The house I live in now is one step closer to the kind of future “energy conscious” house I’m hoping to one day build. Half of it is made from reclaimed sources, and it’s heated and cooled with thermal energy. I’m quite desperate to invest in solar, but my state is lagging way behind in that regard. The best I might be able to do currently is buy solar energy for other people to use.
    And living on top of a mountain means I could utilize wind power as well, but finding the unit I want to invest in is proving challenging as well. Hopefully not for too long.
    Again, I loved the post, and thought your piece on Browne was incredibly informative.
    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You did get an early start! Solar panels keep getting better and better. You probably won’t have to wait long. Wind is trickier — more maintenance, hard to store the energy, hard on birds and bats. You probably know all that. You are way ahead of the game with your thermal heating. Looking forward to your future funnies about us industrialized humans and climate change. Cheers.

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  • When he was with BP, he tried to play the exec. game while trying to push his own beliefs.

    Did I mention that my partner spent the whole of his career with a major national oil firm? He was in middle management ranks but decided to stay at the analyst/contracts management level where he negotiated some huge contracts for his firm near the end of his career.

    He has an engineering degree which also gives him a bit more knowledge to critique the industry.
    There are a number of global markets, infrastructure requirements (installation of solar panels that’s not too costly, electric battery charging stations), etc. which make it very financially challenging for companies that want to penetrate big into solar power, wind power and electric cars. But there are brave entrepreneurs out there.

    Also living in a city that is Canada’s headquarters for our major oil and energy firms there are certain um..trends one sees with the economic boom and bust cycles. And it is a cycle. Climate change is not discussed heavily in the local press nor do we have huge group public rallies (often).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your husband must have an interesting perspective on the oil and gas industry. Was he always a bicyclist? Did his career have anything to do with choosing a low-carbon method of transportation? The oil and gas employees I’ve talked with are all focused more on the technical challenges of the industry, and several chafe under restrictions imposed by governments.

      Oil and gas are seductive, available and so profitable. Hard to beat that, even knowing what we know about climate change. I can imagine that climate change doesn’t often make it into the local papers of a city that headquarters major energy companies!

      Cheers —

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      • “The oil and gas employees I’ve talked with are all focused more on the technical challenges of the industry, and several chafe under restrictions imposed by governments. ”

        My partner returned to cycling around the time when his divorce was happening and also because his doctor gave him a bad bill of health. So he started cycling for health reasons, less so for environmental.

        He did walk to work or take transit half of the time when he worked in Toronto. Drove for out of town business trips, etc.

        After his divorce, he did not get himself a car since in Toronto the transit was close by. He hasn’t had a car since which is over 25 yrs. ago. He actually has a sleep disorder which causes him to fall asleep at the steering wheel if his body is still for over an hr. He used to drink tons of coffee to keep himself awake while driving.

        So for his own personal safety he doesn’t own a car. He will drive 1-2 times per year in a rented car for a specific reason because he has no other choice.

        Yes, true many who work in the oil and gas chafe on govn’t regulations. And will tell you, that sometimes they do more than what the law requires. Interestingly, some of the major oil firms, do provide bike parking facilities and some showers for their commuting emloyees in the downtown core.

        I actually think Alberta should work hard on diversifying solar power capture and distribution: we get a lot more sunny days year round (even in winter) and longer hrs. of daylight than other parts of Canada.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Government regulations are made to chafe against. Better if we do things voluntarily without being required. Unfortunately, too often we don’t, then we get regulations, which cause problems all on their own. It’s an ongoing battle. Sounds like your husband is a determined and resourceful man. Yes — more solar power, more diversification.

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  • Many thanks for bringing to attention an important concern. Govt. Of many countries and corporates in the garb of development and profitability are violating environmental norms with impunity.

    The least we can do is to spread awareness and in our own small way use Eco friendly systems for our homes.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Great read, very well written! I’d never heard the story of John Browne, so I found it quite fascinating. It’s interesting to consider the dilemmas we face when evaluating short term profit vs. what’s sustainable long term. In my opinion, it’s almost always better to be an early adopter and pioneer more responsible business practices. Usually it pays dividends in the long run, but withstanding the ridicule and sacrificing profits in the short term often breaks companies/leaders.Interesting concepts to think about. Thanks for sharing!

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    • I agree. It’s always better to be thinking ahead, finding solutions, working things out, moving ahead. Our short-term-profit thinking worked well when natural resources, it seemed, were boundless. Now we have to think a different way. It ain’t gonna be easy.

      Liked by 1 person

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