Bob Dudley, the chief executive of BP, is not used to being asked tough questions. He’s more of an easy-going, partying in a desert city with India’s richest man, kinda guy.
Asked on CNBC why his company had lobbied the Trump administration to rollback key Obama-era environmental rules, including regulations limiting methane emissions, he floundered slightly.
"We’re trying to be leaders on methane emissions… I don’t know where that story came from."
It came from my colleague Lawrence Carter at Unearthed, and was also reported by the FT. According to Unearthed, documents submitted by BP and powerful trade groups to US regulators show that the oil company played a role in getting the Trump administration to undo two regulations designed to limit methane emissions from oil and gas companies
Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the oil and gas sector is the biggest source of it in the US. It’s no surprise, then, that efforts to tackle methane emissions were a major part of the Obama administration's plan to tackle climate change.
BP – which says it is working towards "greener, cleaner, smarter energy" in its new international advertising campaign – has been keen to position itself as an industry leader on methane emissions. But behind-the-scenes, it argued that the Obama-era rules would be "very costly and labour-intensive to implement".
Not great, Bob.
"We’re trying to be leaders on methane emissions," Dudley told CNBC. "We’ve been working with the Trump administration to make sure that regulations allow for new technologies to come in."
Responding to the FT, a BP spokesperson said, “We have consistently advocated for regulation of methane emissions by one federal agency – the Environmental Protection Agency – rather than an inefficient patchwork of different federal or state agencies."
That’s BP’s line. It’s not that it's against regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, it’s just against bad regulations. We’ve heard this before. When the company spent almost $13 million trying to stop a carbon tax being introduced in Washington state, it wasn’t because it doesn’t like carbon taxes. No, it supports them. It was because Washington was proposing the wrong kind of carbon tax.
BP gets away with this kind of doublethink partly because it’s really rich; it made $12.7 billion in profit last year. But the company can only continue making vast profits if the world continues to fail to take drastic action to prevent climate change. For all its talk of investing in cleaner energy, of burning fossil fuels more efficiently, ultimately its current business model depends on pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere.
In the company’s major new advertising campaign, its first in ten years, BP has made a decision to paint oil and gas as essential for modern life, rather than just talking up its investments in green technology.
Duncan Blake, the company’s director of brand, told the FT recently: “We’re not just focusing on the new, interesting, shiny stuff, but the core business that keeps the world moving day-to-day."
It’s a convenient line for a company that has in the recent past abandoned investments worth billions in green energy to refocus on fossil fuels.
BP is not the only oil giant pursuing this kind of marketing. Shell has aggressively sold its "Sky Scenario" in recent months. The plan sets out a way for the world to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement while maintaining a significant role for oil and gas.
Shell’s idea is that the world will keep burning fossil fuels before the price of renewables drops and negative emissions technology (literally machines that suck greenhouse gases out of the sky) comes online.
Despite some encouraging signs, this new technology remains largely untested. But by talking it up, big oil can legitimise its actions today.
Looking to increase global oil production would be pretty damn irresponsible if there was no plan to clean up the mess further down the line. And having no plan to stop the end of civilisation might also be a turn-off for the young people these oil companies need to recruit.
There’s the conundrum, then. How can you make it look like you’re doing something to address the climate crisis, when your very existence depends on not doing very much about it?
Well, when you’re rich enough, you can do anything.
A day after the Unearthed story broke, BP managed to generate positive news headlines by making an announcement: a call on the US government to tighten rules limiting methane leaks.
Joe Sandler Clarke is a reporter for Unearthed .
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