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Reguly: Time Will Tell Whether BP is Serious About Decarbonizing

Colossal fossil BP has been making some bold moves lately, promising net-zero emissions by 2050 in mid-February before downgrading its asset value by US$17.5 billion last week. But Globe and Mail European Bureau Chief Eric Reguly says the company may not be as keen on a “black-to-green transformation” as it might seem.

“The write-down was triggered by the begrudging acceptance of two related realities,” Reguly writes. “The first was that oil prices are likely to stay lower for longer, the reverse of the ‘stronger for longer’ mantra that ruled the thinking of oil and mining bosses until about the middle of the past decade. The second was that low prices and the global decarbonization effort mean that some oil reserves may never be pumped—the dreaded stranded asset scenario. To oil companies, oil left in the ground is like a parked passenger jet: Neither pays the rent.”

BP “said it would have to adapt to a world where oil is neither needed nor wanted as much as it used to be,” he adds. But “Job No. 1 is keeping investors happy. Loading up on wind and solar farms, and leaving oil in the ground, may not be what they want.”

Reguly recalls the moment 20 years ago when BP rechristened itself Beyond Petroleum and put a US$200-million PR budget behind the new brand. “The transformation went nowhere,” he writes. “BP realized it was better at drilling holes than operating wind and solar farms and got rid of them shortly after Beyond Petroleum was rolled out. It doubled down on its oil bet by investing heavily in U.S. shale oil and gas and the Alberta oil sands. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the industry’s worst disasters, reminded the world that BP’s heart was black, not green.”

So now, Reguly concludes, “BP might be greenwashing itself again by pledging to embrace a net-zero future, to the point that it is writing off huge chunks of value in its hydrocarbon business. If Mr. Looney wants to emerge as the man who transformed BP into a green-tinged, diversified energy company, he will have to follow up with some firm spending and milestone commitments to embrace beyond doubt that BP’s future is ‘Beyond Petroleum.’ If he doesn’t, BP will remain part of the climate problem, not the solution.”