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Five Years After Deepwater Horizon, Can BP Repair Its Reputation?

It has been almost five years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico claimed 11 lives and became the largest oil spill in world history. The crisis unleashed a torrent of criticism against BP, which operated the offshore oil rig. Countless pundits, journalists and political leaders lambasted the company for what the company did — or did not do. Accused of reckless conduct and gross negligence, the company settled with the U.S. Justice Department in 2012, but other litigation is ongoing. A U.S. District Court judge last fall ruled BP was responsible for the oil spill, which could result in civil penalties of up to US$18 billion.

The fury over BP’s role in the Gulf spill effectively erased the progress BP had made on the corporate responsibility fronts in the previous decade. Long before many of the world’s largest companies began paying serious attention their operations’ social and environmental impacts, BP was a trailblazer on the corporate reporting scene. Its 1998 corporate responsibility report, for example, discussed greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets, a host of environmental and social data and information on how it was conducting business across the world.

A decade later, former CEO Tony Hayward sounded progressive in the company’s 2008 sustainability report, giving the now-oft quote: “I don’t see a distinction between sustainability and performance.” The company had launched some nascent investments in renewable energy, discussed its safety record and offered substantial discussion on what it was doing to address the growing risks of climate change.

But once the April 20, 2010 oil spill in the Gulf hit the newswires, any luster and goodwill the company had enjoyed collapsed into a freefall. BP’s stations in the U.S. suffered from declining sales, the company became a punching bag of the Obama Administration and Hayward departed from the company that summer. For three months, the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill was a public relations nightmare as an underwater camera revealed the ongoing discharge of crude oil into the Gulf before the gusher on the sea floor could be capped and sealed.

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This black eye — or gaping wound, depending on one’s point of view — aside, BP is still a major player within the global energy sector. The company continued on with business as usual in over 80 countries with approximately 84,000 employees. BP continued to move ahead with its plans in the conventional and renewable energy industries with investments in its share of energy projects, including those in wind farms and biofuels.

And BP is still a regular reporter on the corporate responsibility front. The oil giant encourages its business units scattered across the globe to publish their own sustainability reports. BP’s sustainability website serves as a large archive of case studies, from ensuring labor rights within the sugarcane ethanol industry in Brazil to encouraging students in its home country to pursue interests and careers in science. BP’s footprint is seen across all over the world; at the recent Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, for example, BP covered the cost of carbon credits for the approximately 32,000 people who attend the largest sustainability conference in the Middle East. Even its controversial tar sands investments have been part of the company’s plan to make its operations more “sustainable.”

The company beats its own drum when it comes to energy policy, too. Two years ago, the company broke from convention and sided against almost all major oil companies when it decided not to pursue the reversal of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard. From localizing supply chains to increased screening for its projects’ environmental and social impacts, BP is giving the impression it is attempting to serve as a strong global corporate citizen.

But many observers are still not ready to jump on BP’s bandwagon of rebirth and reform. Last fall, one of its top communications executives in the U.S. was criticized for what many saw as minimizing the dangers from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in an op-ed that was published on Politico. The essay was seen as tone-deaf and minimizing BP’s lasting impact on the Gulf of Mexico’s environment, including a factoid claiming natural oil seeps into the Gulf at a rate of “six Exxon Valdez spills” annually. Activists who have accused the company over everything from a cover-up to only engaging in token clean energy projects are in no mood to forgive or forget when happened five years ago.

To that end, opposition to BP is still playing out around the world, including within the company’s home base. After a two-year litigation battle, artists and environmental activists in the UK forced the famous Tate Modern in London to reveal the amount of financial gifts BP had donated to the museum since 1990. The result has been a huge headache for the Tate as activists claim BP received far too much recognition from the gallery considering its relatively modest financial contributions over the years. And to many opponents of the oil industry, including London-based Platform, the argument goes further — whether cultural institutions should accept donations from BP, or any oil company, at all.

Five years after its darkest moment in its 100-year history, BP is still a lightning rod for those who are opposed to the oil and gas industry on environmental, social and moral grounds. But the company continues to publish its corporate responsibility reports and stays on message. Fair or not, until all litigation is settled and the Gulf of Mexico is deemed free of any contamination from the Deepwater Horizon crisis, BP will have to keep working hard if it is to convince opponents that it is a genuinely engaged corporate citizen.


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