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Our Insights 4 Apr 2011

Wanted: Leadership

By Jeff Erikson

On March 22 BP released its 2010 Sustainability Review. The front cover – a picture of a clean-up vessel, boom deployed, amidst a messy slick of floating oil – conveyed the message that the report was going to address the Deepwater Horizon accident head on. The inside cover likewise contains a series of less-than-flattering pictures of the accident and the aftermath, beginning with the Deepwater Horizon fully engulfed in flames. “Gutsy” was how one of my colleagues in DC described it. “Bull****” was an alternative description used by one blogger that seemed to sum up how a significant number of critics saw the report. The biggest irritant to many was the omission of an estimate of the volume of the spill in the Gulf from both the environmental indicators data and the description of the accident and its aftermath.

SustainAbility was not directly involved with the development of BP’s report, though we did facilitate two stakeholder meetings designed to provide BP with input for it. My key takeaway from those meetings: there is a hunger among stakeholders for someone – anyone – in the oil industry to take leadership on the transition to a low-carbon economy. I was asked by BP to provide a recap of the meetings for inclusion in their sustainability report – it’s on page 41 if you care to have a look, and the text is repeated below.

Wanted: Leadership

That was the overarching theme which emerged from two roundtable discussions BP held with opinion leaders in London and Washington last autumn. In the aftermath of the explosion on Deepwater Horizon, a question on the minds of many within BP was “How do we rebuild trust?” To get answers to that question, BP asked SustainAbility to help them pull together and moderate a group of thoughtful, opinionated individuals from a variety of organizations. Environmental NGOs, socially-responsible investors, social justice NGOs, peer companies, a university student and others – 18 in total – spent half a day in dialogue with BP about what it would take.

While the objective of the meeting was focused on transparency, reporting and stakeholder engagement, the discussion inevitably, repeatedly and usefully strayed into BP’s forward strategy. We heard that if BP is to rebuild trust, it must go beyond transparency and engagement and demonstrate real and substantial shifts in culture, investments and strategy. There was a strong desire expressed by many of those present at the roundtables for BP to lead the industry to a more sustainable future. “We need you”, one stakeholder implored. The leadership they sought would combine operational excellence, robust external engagement, and real progress towards a low-carbon economy.

BP’s tone during the roundtables was humble throughout, focused much more on listening than attempting to convince. My personal sense was that the BP participants were sincerely interested in understanding and acting on the advice they were receiving. And everyone in the room acknowledged the tension between the vision which was being articulated of a company that would lead the world into a clean energy future, and the current reality of an oil and gas company which is focused on just getting back on its feet. The critical question seemed to be, as one participant in Washington put it, “will BP stand for ‘Beyond Petroleum or ‘Back to Petroleum’?” Many of BP’s stakeholders are looking for early signals of BP’s answer to that question.

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