BP Is not “Beyond Petroleum”

WASHINGTON – A few years ago, the oil multinational British Petroleum, more commonly known as BP, embarked in a clever public relations campaign aimed at differentiating itself from the generally accepted negative stereotype of the greedy, we-shall-exploit-forever-and-damned-the-environment oil company. They started an aggressive and sustained advertising campaign centered on the smart idea that “BP” does not stand for “British Petroleum”. No –you see– it really stands for “Beyond Petroleum”. So, the real BP story is that oil is in the past. We are “beyond” it and thus beyond all the bad stuff you associate with oil.  Got that? This public relations campaign is ongoing.

Clever PR

So, BP is not just another oil company. No, it is an “energy company” that is diligently and enthusiastically investing huge sums into all possible solutions, new ideas and new technologies. In fact renewable, clean energy is all over, front and center in these ads. And so we have the new, definitely green, logo, suggesting a sun or a flower, all green and yellow. And we have the hip TV commercials in which keenly aware, obviously “with it”, tech-literate, members of the public opine about lowering their carbon foot print, the best mix between fossil and non fossil fuels going forward, about biomass, wind power and more.

A different energy company

The goal was and is to sell to the public the idea that BP is different, modern, environmentally conscious and forward looking. In fact, BP is portrayed as a path breaker. Indeed, the one company that will design our environmentally friendly, safe energy future. The proverbial observer from outer space might conclude that BP is a diversified energy company that, yes, still has a bit of oil here and there; but a company that has moved “beyond” all that and that is intelligently charting a new post-carbon course.

The tragedy and its consequences

It would be in bad taste, I think, as we are witnessing this unfolding BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, subsequent to the explosion and sinking of the Transocean off shore oil platform working for BP, to laugh at BP’s bad luck. Right now BP, as the company in charge of the project, is in the middle of a tragedy whose likely consequences and impact, on top of 11 lives already lost in the accident, might be a lot worse than those associated with other oil spills.

Morale of the story: do not pretend to be what you are not

However, be that as it may, there is still a cautionary tale in all this. Companies should not lie, obfuscate or pretend. They should avoid attempts at fake, public relations driven, image reinvention; trying to manipulate public opinion by selling smoke. BP is doing this, so that it can don the mantle of hip environmentalist, all geared towards renewable energy, so that people can love it. This is mostly fluff. BP is an oil and gas multinational corporation. It may indeed believe more than others in the need for a long term diversification of its product line. It may indeed have a commitment to corporate social responsibility, (CSR), and thus to worthy economic and social projects aimed at improving the lot of diverse communities around the world within which it operates. This is all fine and good.

Still an oil company

But BP is still an oil company that may get enmeshed in disasters such as this one in the Gulf of Mexico. A disaster that unfortunately brings home the fact that the oil business, as sophisticated and as technologically advanced as it has become, is still dangerous and accident prone. This reality affects all oil companies and oil services companies. And BP is now in the middle of a big problem that most likely will have long term, painful consequences.

A “Beyond Petroleum” company would not find itself in this disaster

However, if it had been –in truth and not just in TV ads– the future oriented, savvy “beyond petroleum” company that it wanted others to believe it is, BP would probably not be in the business of operating in an extremely difficult, dangerous and challenging environment of very deep waters, relying on technologies and systems that, as it turns out, are quite imperfect. If it were indeed the “Beyond Petroleum” company it wanted others to believe it is, BP would be busy with solar panels and wind farms. And these do not explode and sink in thousands of feet of water, releasing unknown quanties of oil. But we know the facts.

So, while we wish all involved in fixing this human and environmental disaster good luck and a speedy solution, I also wish that BP would drop the pretense of being “beyond” this and that and level with the public, by presenting itself for what it is: a major oil company; now unfortunately dealing with the consequences of being involved in its core business.


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