BP’s Slide Backwards into Promotional CSR
Blog by Wayne Visser
By 2000, John Browne, then-CEO of BP, felt the company had earned enough sustainability kudos to risk a major rebranding. The company reportedly spent $7 million in researching the new ‘Beyond Petroleum’ Helios brand and $25 million on a campaign to support the brand change. When Browne justified the exercise by saying ‘it’s all about increasing sales, increasing margins and reducing costs at the retail sites’, perhaps more people should have tempered their expectations. Certainly Greenpeace wasn’t duped, concluding at the time that ‘this is a triumph of style over substance. BP spent more on their logo this year than they did on renewable energy last year’.
Antonia Juhasz, author of The Tyranny of Oil (2008), was similarly sceptical, claiming that at its peak, BP was spending 4% of its total capital and exploratory budget on renewable energy and that this has since declined, despite Browne’s announcement in 2005 of BP’s plans to double its investment in alternative and renewable energies ‘to create a new low-carbon power business with the growth potential to deliver revenues of around $6 billion a year within the next decade.’
Sceptics notwithstanding, Browne had earned his new title as the ‘Sun King’ and his reputation was not only being earned with green stripes. BP was also one of the first companies to declare their support for the Publish-What-You-Pay campaign. But success or failure is all about timing. If Browne had been a politician and had retired in 2003 after two four-year terms of office, he may still have been covered in glory, with his Sun King crown firmly in place. After all, he had turned BP into an oil major – perhaps even a competitor for Exxon Mobil – by creating a lean, mean, green machine. Instead, he hung onto power long enough to face the consequences of his own legacy of cost-cutting and rhetoric. As a result, between 2004 and 2007, the proverbial chickens came home to roost. Browne was left tarred and feathered.
On 23 March 2005, when an explosion and fire at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 others. An investigation into the accident by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ultimately found over 300 safety violations and fined BP $21 million – the largest fine in OSHA history at the time. In 2007, in a separate settlement related to the explosion, BP pleaded guilty to a violation of the federal Clean Air Act and agreed to pay a $50 million fine and to make safety upgrades to the plant. Two years later, in 2009, OSHA imposed an additional $87 million in fines, claiming that the company had not completed all the safety upgrades required under the agreement and alleging 439 new ‘wilful’ safety violations.
In March 2006, BP was found to be criminally liable for …
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Cite this blog
Visser, W. (2012) Broken Promises: BP’s Slide Backwards into Promotional CSR, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 28 February 2012.