Charlie Rose Talks to Former BP Chief John Browne

BP’s former CEO discusses energy’s impact on the crisis in Ukraine, high hopes for renewables, and being gay in business

Charlie Rose Talks to Former BP Chief John Browne
“Solar’s come down by 50 percent in price over the last five years. There’s no reason it can’t happen again”
Photograph by Oli Scarff/PA Wire/AP Images

You’ve written a book, Seven Elements That Have Changed the World. Let’s discuss one of them, carbon, and how we’re managing it.
First, we’re not going to run out of hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future. We have enough coal, we have enough oil, and we have enough gas to do whatever we want. Every time we think we’re running out, we find more. The shale gas boom is here. So the question is, what do we do with it? I’m a firm believer that we have to figure out a way of replacing, over time, the burning of heavy carbon, coal, with a lighter carbon, gas.
What about alternative energy sources and their cost-effectiveness?
Renewable energy is doing amazingly well. It’s producing more electricity in the world than nuclear power is at the moment. It’s not cost-effective everywhere. Some places, yes, where the wind blows very strongly or the sun shines for a long time. But it’s getting cheaper every year. Solar’s come down by 50 percent in price over the last five years. There’s no reason it can’t happen again.
Is Europe at the mercy of Russia because of the flow of its energy through Ukraine?
Europe, if you put it in various terms, has always been at the mercy of Russia. A lot of gas has come from Russia for many, many years—and that gas has actually been supplied pretty well without interruption. For the bulk of Europe, it’s been vital. It’s always been a partner of Russia, if you will, in the energy business. And the world has been a partner of Russia in the oil business. It’s still a very big producer of oil. It’s in the club of three: the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
Do you have any problems with fracking?
I don’t. In fact, I think it’s a very good thing. It’s got to be done properly—competent operator, good regulation, transparency about what’s going on. Of course, it’s been done badly in some cases. But the predominant amount of activity is being done very well. It hasn’t affected the environment. It hasn’t released methane. Sometimes it does, though, so we’ve got to get rid of the bad to reinforce the good. And that’s done by having great regulations enforced and having good people do it.
As an oil industry CEO, you took a leading role in addressing global warming. How did your peers react?
I was certainly the first to take a public stand. What they said was, “You’re wrong, and this is an existential threat to our industry, and we mustn’t talk about it.” And I said, “I think you’re wrong. We need to get around the table and discuss it.” That was 15 years ago.
Has BP been able to repair the damage to its image caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?
It takes time. You can spend time building up good will and reputation into a reservoir that’s like a tank. And it empties very quickly. And then you need time to build it up again and demonstrate that you are good for your word. And I believe BP is doing that already.
What’s next? A memoir?
I’ve written a book, which is coming out in the middle of the year, on being gay in business. I come from a generation that thought it was a defect, and you had to hide it because it would surely get in the way of anything you wanted to do. How wrong I was. I hope young people today think differently. Unfortunately I don’t think everybody does. Right now, I think there’s only one openly gay CEO in the S&P 500.

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