Time for BP to Walk its Talk

In November, we wrote an open letter invitation to BP’s ‘Lower 48’ CEO Dave Lawler to attend the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Denver public hearing considering the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken safeguards requiring the oil and gas industry to cut its methane and associated toxic air pollution.   

BP didn’t accept our invitation, nor the one delivered by activists who rallied at the front door of their downtown Denver headquarters. It became clear why there were a no-show when they submitted their comments on EPA’s proposal: Despite BP’s public declamations of climate concern, the company complained it’s too costly to detect methane leaks and repair them.

Their stance changed last month when BP America Chairwoman Susan Dio threw her company’s support behind the direct regulation of methane pollution from all new and existing oil and gas operations.

It’s better late than never.  Now, BP has to get to work putting those words into action.

Unfortunately, in the time it has taken BP to speak out, the Trump administration has advanced their proposal to weaken methane rules, and, worse yet, is expected to announce a new proposal that would repeal these rules for oil and gas companies altogether.

The good news is that BP is not alone in shifting their position on climate rules.  At a recent large industry conference in Houston, one company after another stood up to reject the Trump administration’s approach to climate policy when it comes to methane.  So, BP joins Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil in urging stronger direct oversight of the oil and gas industry.

This is first time that Big Oil has called for the federal government to regulate them.  As Shell’s U.S. Country Chair, Gretchen Watkis put it, “We don’t usually tell governments how to do their job but we’re ready to break with that and say, ‘Actually, we want to tell you how to do your job.’”

The reasons for this tectonic change in attitude have been acknowledge for some time by all of these companies.

First , methane pollution is an urgent threat to our climate.  It is a greenhouse gas that is 86x more potent at warming our atmosphere than carbon dioxide in the near term, and it leaks at every step of the gas supply chain.  The methane problem is 60% worse or higher than current government estimates, which means that a failure to address methane risks the progress the world may make in reducing threats from CO2.

Second, with climate science showing that we have just 11 years to prevent the worst consequences of climate change and with extreme weather events growing in frequency, public opinions are shifting decidedly in favor of climate action.

Third, addressing methane pollution makes business sense.  Since methane is the main component of natural gas, cutting pollution means eliminating waste and moving more product to market.

The big question for BP–and the rest of us–now is will Trump and EPA Administration Andrew Wheeler listen?

The statement of support for methane rules from BP this week are deserving of appreciation.  But words, no matter how strong, mean little without action. And BP’s actions contradict their public statements.

At their oil and gas operations, BP continues to emit methane pollution as documented by Earthworks’ certified thermographers. BP recently lobbied the Trump administration to weaken methane rules.  And a 2019 investigation reveals BP as one of a few oil and gas companies who have spent a combined total of $1 billion in efforts to undermine government action on climate since the signing of the Paris Agreement.

In short, BP has a credibility problem because, as the Houston Chronicle editorial board put it, “oil and gas companies have a bad habit of announcing one thing to the public and another behind closed doors.”

To mitigate their credibility deficit BP could demand that trade associations to which it belongs (and pay dues), most prominently the American Petroleum Institute, stop pushing the Trump administration to weaken or repeal methane rules.

BP has a lot of work ahead of it.  Admitting their methane pollution problem and their need for government oversight was the first step.  The challenge ahead calls for radical action and radical transparency.

So, consider this a new invitation, an invitation to put your words into action–an invitation to which we hope you immediately respond.  Our time is running out.