Beast Corps: British Petroleum’s Greenwashing is A Slick Joke

By Jamie Welch, Beast Corps correspondent…

Can the B.S. propaganda machine kindly stop already? Created by the Ogilvy and Mather advertising agency more than a decade ago, the “Beyond Petroleum” public relations campaign continues to make British Petroleum look ridiculous. While a small portion of their business has been allocated to solar and wind energy, the oil giant’s horrific track record of colossal blunders and environmental rape has once again turned a slick marketing ploy into unadulterated hubris.

Sure, the hypocrisy is easy for us to smell now that it’s bubbling up under our noses. But it’s been more than a decade since the company first displayed its deceitful tactic. In 1999, after the $53 billion purchase of Amoco made it one of the largest oil companies in the world, British Petroleum spent $200 million on a corporate re-branding that comprised changing its name to BP, coining the slogan Beyond Petroleum and re-designing its logo from a shield into a bright-green-and-yellow sunflower that nefariously resembles the Green Party of Canada’s logo.

The expensive advertising endeavor has won awards, but they’re not the kind the late David Ogilvy would have envisioned. In 2008 Greenpeace actually created the Emerald Paintbrush Award and presented the first one to BP for its blatant “greenwashing,” a term created almost 25 years ago for companies that disingenuously spin their products and policies as environmentally friendly. In both 2001 and 2005 BP was named by Mother Jones magazine one of the “Ten Worst Corporations” based on its environmental and human rights records.

The awards were well deserved. Once its greenwashing campaign kicked off, it has done little to nothing to back it up. No strategy, no milestones, not even a draft. A whopping 93% of BP’s $245 billion budget in 2008 was spent on oil and gas while a measly 1.4% was spent on solar (along with 2.79% on wind and 2.79% on biofuels).

In a blatant mockery of its TV ads, and in order to drill deeper into the America’s psyche and pocket book, BP created a political-action front group called Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) to build grassroots support for offshore drilling on both U.S. Coasts. CEA’s message, which has also been on display here in Florida in snappy PowerPoint presentations, is that offshore drilling—make sure you’re sitting down for this one—is safe.

Although we here on the Emerald Coast have unfortunately become its latest victims, BP has shown over and over again with its embarrassing misadventures that oil drilling and refining is decidedly unsafe for the environment, animals, you and me.

Over the last 20 years, BP subsidiaries have been convicted three times (soon to be more) of environmental crimes in Alaska and Texas, including two felonies. In 1991 Bp was cited as the most polluting company in America based on EPA toxic release data. It was charged with burning polluted gases at its Ohio refinery (for which it was fined $1.7 million), and in 2000 BP paid a $10 million fine to the EPA for its management of its American refineries. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation” and stated management failures could be traced from Texas to London. The company has pleaded guilty to one felony violation of the Clean Air Act.

One of BP’s largest refineries in the U.S. is located near Galveston, Texas. In 2005 it exploded and caused 15 deaths, 170 injuries and forced thousands of nearby residents to remain sheltered in their homes (see last week’s cover story for a full report).

In 2006 BP shut down oil operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska after it had spilled over 250,000 gallons of oil due to pipeline corrosion. In 2007 Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation reported a toxic spill of methanol at the same Prudhoe Bay oil field, where 2,000 gallons of poisonous methanol mixed with some crude oil spilled onto a frozen tundra pond. BP’s been repeatedly criticized for its involvement with Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline—a 1,000-mile-long crude line from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Seas—because of environmental and safety concerns. BP is one of numerous firms that are extracting oil from Canadian oil sands, a process that produces four times as much CO2 as conventional drilling.

The list of crimes against the environment continues ad nauseam; and with regard to human rights, BP has been equally callous. In 2006, a group of Colombian farmers won a multi-million-dollar settlement from BP after it was accused of benefiting from a regime of terror carried out by Colombian government paramilitaries to protect a 450-mile oil pipeline. On October 30, 2009, OSHA fined BP an additional $87 million—at the time the largest OSHA fine history—for failing to correct safety hazards revealed in its 2005 Texas explosion. Inspectors found 270 safety violations that had been previously cited but not fixed, plus 439 new violations.

BP is spending lots of money on attorney’s fees to appeal that decision, while this past March it announced it would be closing its solar panel assembly center in Maryland, a move that would lay off 140 people out of a 600-person workforce; right on the heels of closing down the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in Sydney, Australia—where 200 BP employees lost their jobs last year. It’s also closing its solar-panel-manufacturing complex in Madrid, Spain, where it will let go 480 out of 575 employees.

But get this: the entire marketing staff in Madrid will continue to work. What a relief! Surely one of them can get that 5-story, 900,000-pound, “failsafe-backstop” blowout preventer out there in the Gulf back to work in a jiffy.

Last week Bp CEO Tony Hayward, who initially tried to pawn off all responsibility for the spill on Transocean, was actually quoted as saying the millions of gallons of oil, which will be gushing horrifically all summer long and will indeed be BP’s worst environmental crime ever, is a “relatively tiny” amount compared to the “very big ocean.”

Bottom line: the only “slick” thing about BP’s greenwashing is the crude joke that’s haunting our beautiful waters like a ghost ship. And those TV commercials, which include soft voices, solar panels and very large windmills, have come to make Tony Hayward appear more quixotic than ever.

Jamie Welch is an international journalist with 20 years experience, a career that started with a monthly alternative press rag he started with five others in Omaha and is now The Reader.