Reflecting on BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ shift, new study puts climate change responsibility on energy companies

By Benjamin Hulac | 07/30/2015 08:24 AM EDT

In May 1997, Lord John Browne, BP PLC’s chief executive at the time, delivered a stem-winding speech to about 100 people at Stanford University to "discuss in a calm and rational way a subject which raises great emotion."

That subject was climate change — a matter weighed down by "a lot of noise in the data" but, ultimately, one of scientific consensus, BP’s top man said.

Wading into the crowd, Browne fielded questions for about 20 minutes. With a microphone clipped to his belt, he spoke and responded extemporaneously, at times squinting through the sun. He concluded to warm applause.


The speech signaled a new era for the energy giant. The firm soon promptly pushed a new slogan, "Beyond Petroleum," into the spotlight. Browne endorsed steady solar investment and explained how BP was monitoring its internal carbon footprint, while minding the tightrope of oil and gas talking points. Two years later, in 1999, British Petroleum established its BP Solar unit.

Browne also talked about corporate moral responsibility.

"As a company, our contribution is small, and our actions alone could not resolve the problem," he said, pledging the British energy giant to a more measured, sustainable future. "But that does not mean we should do nothing," he said.

Yet, according to the authors of a new essay examining who is responsible for the warming planet, that’s essentially what the world’s biggest energy companies have done since that California speech.

In fact, the authors level the charge that major publicly traded fossil energy companies "took essentially the opposite path, denying the reality of the problem of climate change, working to ensure that fossil fuels would remain central to global energy production and that emissions would continue unabated."

While BP and Shell Oil in 1997 and 1998, respectively, left the Global Climate Coalition — a lobby the firms and others had helped form to oppose emissions-cutting laws — the fossil energy production and corporate efforts against climate policies soon increased.

"Browne’s call for corporate responsibility on climate was rejected by the major industrial producers, and ultimately by BP itself," the paper reads. (Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists; Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute; and Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor of the history of science, wrote the paper.)

Rather, the authors write, large energy players "pursued a business model that coupled doubt-mongering about climate science with political advocacy against carbon regulations and in support of aggressive development of new sources of fossil fuels."

Changing tracks, to ‘obfuscation and denial’?

Exxon Mobil Corp., from 1988 and 2005, spent more than $16 million to spread misleading climate change information, according to the paper, one of several examples the authors highlight. In 2009, to swell the crowds at American Petroleum Institute (API) rallies, Chevron Corp. shuttled employees to demonstrations against climate legislation. And trade lobbies opposed to carbon-cutting regulations, such as API, the American Coal Council and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have loomed large over Washington’s energy politics and continue to do so.

In a call from Snowmass, Colo., Heede said the heels-dug-in approach of "obfuscation and denial" may backfire in the eyes of the public.

"I think that legacy is going to haunt them," he said. "Meanwhile, they’re still happily projecting an increase in fossil fuels," he added of the top energy firms. "That needs to shift."

BP, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell PLC each project heavy demand for their products in the coming decades, but "none anticipates a global price or cap or other strict regulatory limit on carbon for decades," the authors write.

Indeed, the French company Total SA maintains that energy demand worldwide in 2030 will be 25 percent greater than it was in 2010 and that three-quarters of that shortfall will come from fossil sources. The U.S. Department of Energy projects global energy demand will jump 50 percent by 2040, "and oil, natural gas and coal are expected to meet most of that demand," Chevron states online. Peer firms make similar forecasts.

Reframing ‘climate responsibilities’

Perhaps most novel of all, the authors suggest a concept of pinpointing the sources of global climate change, squarely blaming industry, not nations or governments.

Assigning accountability for rising emissions typically falls along well-trodden geopolitical pairs: industrialized nations versus emerging economies, heavy per-capita emitters and more efficient counterparts or the Western Hemisphere against the East.

From 1751 to 2013, 65 percent of industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions has come from 83 coal, oil and gas companies and seven cement manufacturers, according to Heede’s research, while 29 percent of those emissions came from 20 investor- and state-owned companies. More than half of industrial emissions worldwide have come since 1988, the authors write. And Chevron, Exxon and Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil monolith, are each responsible for about 3 percent of global methane and carbon emissions since the mid-19th century, based on Heede’s data.

The common way to frame "climate responsibility" and who’s to blame for global warming typically falls on national governments. Frumhoff and his colleagues wanted to provide a new angle.

"The whole U.N. framework focuses attention on the responsibility of nations," Frumhoff said. "And obviously they’re not wrong." Alluding to fossil fuel divestment protests, shareholder resolution campaigns and the climate impact risks cities and regions face, he segued.

"There’s a whole other conversation taking place around social responsibility," he said. "I think we’re beginning to engage in this conversation," he added, comparing the fossil energy sector’s "social responsibility" for climate change with that of other firms that "knowingly marketed products they knew were risky."

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice brought racketeering charges against tobacco companies after concluding that "the industry was legally culpable for spreading disinformation," as paper reads. The tales of legal struggles over asbestos and lead paint, and the industries that sold both products, followed similar trajectories, the authors write.

"This is a scientific paper, but it’s an argument, it’s an essay," he said in an interview. "When everybody’s responsible, then nobody’s responsible."