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Out, Damned Spill, Out

BP’s hypocrisy problem—and ours.

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Illustration by Andy Friedman  

The day before Tony Hayward went up to Capitol Hill, Bart Stupak, the chairman of the House subcommittee before which Hayward would be testifying, predicted that BP’s hapless CEO would be “sliced and diced” at the forthcoming hearing. Were Stupak inclined to more purple-hued prose, he could have added that Hayward would also be filleted and fricasseed, folded, spindled, and mutilated, as well as forcefully shat upon. What Stupak—being a member of Congress with a typical congressman’s degree of self- awareness, which is to say less than none—would never have forecast, though he could have done so with equal confidence, was that the only thing as horrific as Hayward’s content-free, stonewalling performance would be the shameless preening and witless blustering of most of Stupak’s colleagues, and the unfathomable stupidity of one Republican (Barton, Joe) would overshadow the whole charade.

That Hayward managed in the hearing to maintain a certain narcotized composure probably had less to do with actual narcotics (though, hey, you never know) than with his understanding that what he was enduring was a ritualized necessity. Like the Obama White House, Hayward’s company wanted to turn last week into an “inflection point,” a chance to pivot to a better place regarding the crisis in the gulf. For the administration, Obama’s Oval Office address and meeting with BP’s bosses were designed to show that the president has a handle on the disaster and a plan to cope with it. For BP, the agreement to put $20 billion into a damage-payment fund, the decision to forgo issuing dividends, and Hayward’s turn on the Hill were meant to blot out its recent PR malfunctions—and cast the company in a newly responsible and contrite light.

Turning the corner and remediating whatever political damage Obama has suffered will not be easy for him. But it will be a stroll in the park compared to what lies ahead for BP. This is, after all, a company that’s devoted hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade to portraying itself, with no small success, as the world’s cleaner, greener energy behemoth. Now that effort lies in tatters, as each day the gusher in the gulf renders BP’s image more and more irredeemable and its bankruptcy more conceivable.

To which you might say: Serves them right. And, trust me, I’m with you all the way, but there’s more to say than that. To no small extent, BP’s public image before the spill both reflected and catered to our national hypocrisy when it comes to fossil fuels. To our desire to feel virtuous while continuing our addiction to oil. As the country grapples with moving to a saner energy future, there are lessons to be learned from the downfall of BP—not the least of which is, to quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The rebranding of British Petroleum began in 2000, when, after merging with Amoco and taking over arco, the company adopted the tagline “Beyond Petroleum” and changed its name to BP. Along with the new slogan came a new logo, created by the design wizards at Landor Associates—a stylized yellow sun with green edges that let it pass just as easily as a flower. Soon enough, billboard ads were popping up all over the United States. SOLAR, NATURAL GAS, WIND, HYDROGEN. AND OH YES, OIL, read one. WE BELIEVE IN ALTERNATIVE ENERGY. LIKE SOLAR AND CAPPUCCINO, read another.

“It was probably the ballsiest rebrand in corporate-identity history,” says my friend Neil Parker, a corporate-branding guru. “Its scale was vast: It meant re-skinning tens of thousands of retail and refining locations, repainting tens of thousands of vehicles, and re-outfitting hundreds of thousands of employees. Ballsier yet was the idea that BP could position itself as an environmental leader, but a lot of smart people thought it was a brilliant way for the company to make itself friendly to consumers while ‘de-position- ing’ its competitors as petro-dinosaurs. And that may have been true, had BP actually moved beyond petroleum or acted as an environmental leader.”

But it did not. Though BP’s former CEO, John Browne, made headlines with a splashy pledge in 2005 that his firm would invest $8 billion over the next ten years in renewable-energy development, this is roughly what BP spends annually on oil exploration and production. In the early years of the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, the company plowed more money into advertising than into renewables—and even now, BP’s investment in hydrogen, wind, solar, and biofuels amounts to just 6 percent of its overall capital expenditures. And this leaves aside the tens of millions of dollars that BP has spent on lobbying against safety regulations, even as it’s compiled the most abysmal safety record of any major oil company. (Safety violations by BP over the past five years: 760. By Exxon Mobil: one.)


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