Long before BP became associated with oil-drenched pelicans and Twitter talk of an oilpocalypse, some critics winced at the company's sunburst logo and decade-old green marketing campaign that sums up the BP brand in two words: "Beyond Petroleum."
The slogan suggests an environmentally friendly company undergoing a sea change toward alternative energy sources like solar and wind. BP says it has invested $4 billion in wind, solar, biofuels and carbon-capture-and-storage since 2005 and the company expects to spend another $4 billion in the next five years. It's the only oil company investing in all of these concepts. And, surprise - oil and gas companies are by far the biggest investors in green energy.
Yet those investments add up to a tiny fraction of BP's overall business. And even before the Deepwater Horizon debacle became the worst oil spill in U.S. history, other high-profile mishaps suggested a reality askew with the green PR.
While working as a journalist years ago, ocean activist David Helvarg first heard BP talk about going "beyond petroleum" when he visited one of BP's rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. A company spokesman who escorted him for two days "kept talking about their commitment to becoming carbon-free while the rig operators kept telling me about this new boom in deepwater oil -- something like 25 billion barrels. That's when I figured BP (Beyond Petroleum) was mostly B.S.," says Helvarg, now president of the marine conservation organization Blue Frontier Campaign.
"I always saw it as 'greenwashing,' as it has proven to be," says Seattle-based environmental activist Fred Felleman. He sued BP in 2000 when the company was granted a federal permit to double its oil-refinery dock capacity next what was once Washington state's largest stock of ecologically crucial herring. BP's expanded dock continues in operation today. "If only BP spent as much money on environmental compliance as they did on PR," Felleman says, "the world would be a safer and cleaner place."
You may recall other high-profile incidents that occurred before the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, which incidentally for a time prompted the gambling website PaddyPower.com to place odds on what Gulf of Mexico species may be first to become extinct as a result of the gusher (the site's oddsmakers bet it'll be the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle).
A fiery explosion in 2005 at the Texas City BP refinery killed 15 people. It injured nearly 200 others. Among other BP incidents, the largest oil spill ever to occur on Alaska's North Slope spewed oil into Prudhoe Bay from a rusty BP pipeline in 2006. Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton later chastised BP executives at a Congressional hearing for "BP's corporate culture of seeming indifference to safety and environmental issues. And this comes from a company that prides itself in their ads on protecting the environment. Shame, shame, shame." (This from a guy who The Washington Monthly says is "generally recognized as the House's most pro-pollution member.")
The current disaster is sometimes compared to the Exxon Valdez 1989 oil spill, evidence of which can be seen even today by picking up a rock on Prince William Sound beaches and viewing the oil beneath. BP owned a controlling interest in the consortium that was supposed to contain what was then the worst oil spill in the nation's history. To an attorney who investigated the botched containment efforts, Zygmunt Plater, now of Boston College, seeing the current disaster unfold in the Gulf brings a "horrible, sickening feeling."
So how does BP view its green role?
London-based BP spokesman Toby Odone points out that "beyond petroleum" is an advertising slogan meant to tell people the company is looking at investing in alternatives as much as it makes business sense to do so.
"We're a business," Odone says. Investing in alternative energy isn't done "to get a good vibe." BP is the most active in alternative energy among all the major oil companies, says analyst Ned Zimmerman of Cleveland-based Freedonia Group. BP at one point was the world's second-largest solar company, the Washington Post reports (it's now in the top 15). Oil companies own a lot of solar operations -- because they can just buy whole solar companies.
That's the irony in today's energy world: the largest green-energy investors are oil and gas companies. "They're the largest polluters, too, so we can't forget that," says Terrence Murray, co-editor of the online clean-tech news service Green Energy Reporter.
BP hasn't gone that far beyond petroleum, to put things in perspective. Senior analyst Philip Weiss of Argus Research in New York says 98 percent of BP's $73 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year came from oil and natural gas.
"When you look at the grand scheme of things, it doesn't seem that big," Weiss says of BP's $4 billion green-energy investment compared to its $240 billion in total assets. Yet, "can you find an independent company that spent more? Is there anybody else that has a business of that size on their own? Probably not. Because it's still an evolving business," he says of alternative energy.
To Weiss, it makes financial sense for BP NOT to go beyond petroleum. BP seems to know it.
"We need to be realistic - the transition to a lower-carbon economy won't happen overnight," BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said in a speech at the Oil and Money Conference in London in October 2009.
BP expects fossil fuels will satisfy about 80 percent of energy needs by 2030, Hayward said.
"I believe that in the realm of alternatives, it's dangerous to promise too much too soon," Hayward said. "It risks rendering the entire global effort both politically and economically unsustainable. And the world can't afford this. So we're talking about an evolution - not a revolution in the energy mix."
Beyond petroleum? Wait a couple of decades.
BP before the oil spill: An environmentally friendly company?