BP: The Big Polluter

September 27, 2000


British Petroleum (BP), one of the world's largest petroleum and petrochemicals groups, is "rebranding" its corporate image. BP's web site describes the exercise: "The move to a single brand follows a $120 billion series of mergers and acquisitions which ... has brought together the former British Petroleum, Amoco Corporation, Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and most recently Burmah Castrol, to create a combined group with a market value of more than $200 billion".

Central to the branding exercise is a new logo, described by BP as "a vibrant sunburst of green, white and yellow" — green for "environmental responsibility" and yellow representing the sun.

BP has spent US$7 million on researching and preparing the new brand. It plans to spend a further US$25 million each quarter publicising it. The rebranding is part of a drive to increase BP's worldwide retail business by more than 10% annually and to "strengthen the sense of identity and common purpose of our 100,000 staff in more than 100 countries".

BP's television advertisements, screening frequently during the Olympics, say nothing about corporate consolidation and staff indoctrination. The ad merely poses inane rhetorical questions: "Can business be a force for good?"; "Can 100,000 people, working in over 100 countries, build a new brand of progress?"

BP's rebranding is a classic exercise in "greenwashing", defined by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as "disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image".

In April 1999, Greenpeace awarded BP chief executive officer John Browne an "Academy Award for the Best Impression of an Environmentalist". In July 1999, BP out-greenwashed some stiff competition, including Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Shell, to win a Greenhouse Greenwash Award.

In March, BP was awarded a greenwash award by the environmental coalition Earth Day 2000, which said, "Of all the oil giants, BP has perhaps most carefully crafted its image to appear concerned about the environment".

BP Solar

BP's subsidiary BP Solar is one of the world's largest solar power producers, with a global market share of 10-20% and projected revenues in excess of US$200 million in 2000. BP Solar says its target is to boost turnover to US$1 billion by 2007.

But these figures do not look so good in perspective:

  • according to Gary Cook from Greenpeace USA, for every $100 BP spent on oil exploration and development in 1998, 16 cents was spent on solar energy.

  • This year, BP will spend more on branding than it spent last year on its solar division.

  • Over the next three years, BP plans to spend 50 times more on oil exploration and drilling projects than on renewable energy.

  • A week before BP purchased the Solarex solar power company for US$45 million in 1998, the company purchased the oil company ARCO for US$26.5 billion.

  • After the merger with ARCO, BP said it planned to spend US$5 billion over the next five years on oil exploration and production in Alaska.

Greenhouse gas

The contradiction between BP's dependence on fossil fuels and its rhetoric about solar energy will be sharpest at its new solar-powered petrol stations, solar panels forming the transparent canopy above the petrol pumps. BP's hullabaloo about "cleaner" fossil fuels also faces a major contradiction: any reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants will be negated if BP increases its business by 10% annually.

BP aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10% from 1990 to 2010. However, BP's main role in causing climate change is not from its own operations, but from the oil and gas it produces and sells. The burning of BP-supplied fossil fuels leads to emissions greater than those of Central America, Canada or Britain. BP oil and gas account for about 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

BP is constructing an oil-drilling plant in the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and it is scheduled to begin production in late 2001. This will be the Arctic's first offshore oil project and threatens the pristine and vulnerable ecosystem.

"'Burning the Planet' would be a better slogan for a company opening a new frontier for oil exploration in the very place where global warming's impact are most acute", said Greenpeace campaigner Melanie Duchin, referring to BP's slogan "Beyond Petroleum".

'Social responsibility'

BP boasts about its "multi-faceted ethics programme", its "global social investment" and its "corporate social responsibility".

In March, BP and the US Agency for International Development announced a joint effort to provide US$1.1 million in humanitarian relief of flooding in Mozambique. In December, the two parties spent US$7 million to provide food to civilians affected by warfare in central Angola. Since 1990, BP has supported Save the Children's Poverty Alleviation and Nutrition Program in Vietnam.

What BP gives with one hand, it takes with the other, and then some. A report commissioned by the Colombian government in 1996 accused BP of collaborating with the military in kidnapping, torture and murder. The report alleged that BP passed intelligence information, including photos and videotapes of people protesting against oil activities, to Colombian military personnel, who then arrested or kidnapped them.

In September 1996, BP signed a three-year, US$60 million agreement with Colombia's ministry of defence to create a battalion of 150 officers and 500 soldiers, including an elite mobile unit, to monitor construction of an 880-kilometre pipeline.

All oil companies operating in Colombia pay the military a "war tax" to police their operations. BP has voluntarily paid more, and admits that it has no control over what its donations fund.

Right-wing paramilitary groups, which claim they are protecting the pipeline from insurgents, were accused of killing 11 people in a report released by the Environmental Defense Fund, the California-based Pacific Environment Resource Centre and other international groups in 1999.

A Turkish secret service report alleged that BP was involved in backing a military coup that overthrew the elected government of Azerbaijan in 1993. In September 1994, BP and Amoco, separate companies at the time, signed a US$8 billion deal for oil drilling rights in Azerbaijan.

In March, BP invested hundreds of millions of dollars in PetroChina, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Company. According to the April 17 edition of Drillbits & Tailings, the China National Petroleum Company has been linked to war crimes in Sudan and is looking to expand oil operations in Tibet.

BP's rebranding exercise indicates a desire to cash in on the consumers' preference for companies believed to be environmentally and socially responsible. Browne says he wants BP to be the "supermajor of choice for the environmentally aware consumer".

John Stauber, editor of PR Watch magazine, summarised the problems arising from the activities of corporate greenwashers: "Because the commodity spectacle is so all-engaging, 'light' green business tends to merely perpetuate the colonization of the mind, sapping our visions of an alternative and giving the idea that our salvation can be gained through shopping rather than through social struggle and transformation".

[Visit Jim Green's nuclear and environmental research web site at <http://www.geocities.com/jimgreen3>.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.