BP, What Could Have Been


The bad news for BP rolled in from all over this week. The company agreed to pay a $50 million fine to settle a refinery blast criminal case. Four of its former traders are facing indictments for their role in a 2004 attempt at cornering the propane market. It settled a civil case stemming from the propane case for over $300 million. And last, but not least, it’s laying off 330 workers in the North Sea.

Combined with this week’s lackluster earnings report, a picture is emerging of BP (BP) as a company that has suffered from mismanagement at too many levels for too many years. It’s clear that its clean energy focus isn’t to blame for BP’s woes. In fact, more and better cleantech investments could have handsomely positioned the company to take advantage of emerging markets.

One glaring hole in BP’s cleantech portfolio was a major investment in clean coal. Only in the past year has the company begun to get serious about the technology. This wasn’t a smart strategic move.

China built 90 gigawatts of coal power in 2006, with no substantive slowdown in sight, and will soon be facing an environmental and public health disaster. When the government eventually does something about it, it will be an enormous market.

Back in 2002, even George W. Bush said, “We will promote clean coal technology.” Yet former CEO Lord John Browne’s 2005 Alternative Energy program largely excluded clean coal technology and instead focused on “solar, wind, hydrogen and combined-cycle-gas-turbine (CCGT) power generation.” These investments were media-friendly but mostly ignored one of the biggest problems in power generation: the rampant and growing use of coal.

BP’s leadership had the vision to see the cleantech revolution coming years ago. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder what Browne’s early green orientation combined with ruthless execution could have yielded. Now, with the new management cleaning house, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see long-term cleantech investment at the company take a backseat to a quick return to greater profitability.

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