Angels and Demons Vie for Momentum in Energy Transition

For many years, Lord John Browne was the average person's favorite oilman.

The 66-year-old engineer became CEO of British Petroleum in 1995. A series of high-profile acquisitions allowed him in 2000 to recast the company as BP -- an 'oil major' in the lingo -- with a beautiful new green logo. He set in motion do-gooder initiatives, famously embracing the risks of climate change in a May 1997 speech . These efforts pre-date those of Wal-Mart and General Electric, which are often credited with super-sizing the corporate sustainability movement, in the mid-2000s. They were a big deal.

By 2007, when he left BP under a cloud of scandal , Browne had gone from noteworthy public intellectual to corporate cautionary tale. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy cast a backward shadow over years marked by BP's public push to be considered green.

"Whatever happened to BP was not about bad intention," Browne said in an interview. "Let's be clear about that."

Browne's experience is emblematic of sustainability's central condundrum: Good new ideas emerge amid bad old practices. These days, everybody has to tolerate working with both angels and demons if global business is going to change without breaking any dishes.

Today, Browne is chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, the U.K.'s top shale gas company, and author of a new book, Seven Elements That Changed the World , a meditation on science, engineering and business.

The Tide Turns

The tide began to turn toward the end of Browne's tenure at BP, as industrial accidents took the shine out of the company's green and yellow Helios symbol.

Inside and outside the company, people began to ask if BP's cost-cutting culture was setting it up for trouble. Tony Hayward, the senior executive who would succeed him in 2007, critiqued leadership in 2006 for its distance from employees and for making "a virtue out of doing more for less" that might not be bad in some cases, but that "needs to be deployed with great judgment and wisdom. When it isn't, you run into trouble," he said, according to an email that was quoted in the 2010 book In Too Deep by Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald.

It didn't take long after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, on April 20, 2010, for this narrative to take hold in public as well. A pattern of worrisome accidents in Scotland, the North Sea and Alaska in 2000, 2003 and 2006 hadn't gone unnoticed in the industry. Fifteen people died in 2005 in an explosion at BP's Texas City refinery, the third largest in the U.S.

With 11 more deaths on the Deepwater Horizon, the public wouldn't forget either. And as presiding CEO in 2010, Hayward would learn the meaning of his own words the hard way.

Enough Blame to Go Around

BP, Halliburton, Transocean, the industry, and the U.S. government all share blame for the tragedy at the Macondo well. But would the Deepwater Horizon tragedy nonetheless have happened on Browne's watch? Are there things that he's come to think of as mistakes?

"There are plenty of mistakes in my career," he said in an interview, "but Macondo was not one of them, because it happened after my career finished there."

Browne disputed statements or implications made in books -- "and they are books, as opposed to reports by authorities," he emphasized -- that cost-cutting under his leadership ripened conditions for industrial accidents. Specifically, he refuted the suggestion that Texas City refinery disaster in 2005 was the result of squeezed safety budgets and that, by extension, the Deepwater Horizon was, too.

"That can not be true. That simply is not true," he said.

At least one report by an authority thought to note an indirect link between BP's financial practices and safety.

A former BP engineer named Oberon Houston told the national oil spill commission (disclosure: where I did research on environmental damage): "The focus on controlling costs was acute at BP; to the point that it became a distraction. They just go after it with a ferocity that is mind-numbing and terrifiying. No one's ever asked to cut corners or take a risk, but it often ends up like that."

Browne was certainly correct to characterize the Macondo event as complex. The standard analogy of catastrophic industrial risks is to cheese, of all things. Imagine being able to drop a ball-bearing through haphazardly stacked slices of Swiss cheese. It's extremely unlikely that the holes will match up. If the "holes" in industrial safety line up, it's a disaster.

"I don't know why Macondo happened," he said. "What I've read, there's more than one reason, and so therefore it's very complex."

Browne himself kept a low profile during the months-long ordeal. "I watched with despair as the disaster unfolded and cameras, more than 1,500 metres underwater, showed the oil leaking into the sea," he wrote in Seven Elements.

He left BP, when he allegedly misrepresented in a court document how he met a former boyfriend (an escort service). In addition to his role at Cuadrilla and Riverstone, Browne has led a study on higher education financial reform for the British government.

BP, Browne and the Future

A federal appeals court this week ruled against BP, in a challenge to the company's $9.2 billion settlement with victims of the 2010 spill.

National governments, the oil industry in general, and BP in particular, have instituted safety and operational improvements in the wake of the Macondo blowout. BP maintains section on its website devoted to its continued work in Gulf recovery and overall safety practices .

The competing strands within Browne's legacy should provide fodder for future executives who admire him, criticize him or both. Christine Bader is a former BP employee who is now a lecturer at Columbia University and a human rights advisor to the sustainability consultancy BSR. As she writes in her new book out this month, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist :

"For all of the criticism that Browne attracted, I still admired how he took bold stances that shifted the global debate about business's role with respect to climate change and human rights."

Global oil companies can do 'good' things among all their 'bad' things. Little about sustainability, ironically, is clean.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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