So the most iconic oilman of his generation, Lord Browne, has finally published his memoirs of his time at BP in a book called “beyond business”.
Whilst most of the reviews so far concentrate on him being gay and his fall from grace, we also get glimpses of the power of oil and what it was like to be a 20th Century oil baron.
As Rowena Mason writes in the Telegraph: “In his lively jaunt through 40 years in the industry, including a decade in charge, Lord Browne exposes the political clout of a multi-national oil boss, hurtling between secret meetings with Russian oligarchs and the world’s most powerful leaders.”
Meetings with Clinton, Blair, Gaddafi, Putin and Chavez are described in detail. So is the time when he used ex-British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to help BP win contracts in Azerbaijan. After the deal was signed: “We stayed up until three in the morning drinking with Mrs Thatcher. What I like about her was that she had style and was never prissy.”
Once dubbed the Sun King by the Financial Times, in his last years at the helm it all started to go wrong. He conceeded that the FT article had “set me up as an arrogant target”, adding that “all that went wrong with the company would ever after be personalised”.
But the mistakes started to happen. “There is no doubt that I became obsessed with BP and its challenges. When determination and enthusiasm turn into obsession, you lose your balance.”
His arrogance and a culture of complacency contributed to BP’s failure to prevent a huge oil spill in Alaska and the explosion at the company’s Texas City oil refinery, resulting in 15 deaths and 170 injuries. “My blood ran cold,” he recalls when told of the explosion.
He expresses regret at what happened in Alaska. “I wish someone had challenged me and been brave enough to say: ‘We need to ask more disagreeable questions.'”
He also reveals what many people have often wondered: that BP and Shell considered merging at one point. He met his then opposite number at Shell, Jeroen van der Veer, at Lake Como in Italy in 2004.
“Keen observers might have spotted two figures strolling beside Lake Como one morning after coffee. Shell’s CEO and I both agreed we should deeply consider the possibility of a merger,” writes Browne.
But the plan was blocked by his own board.
Although Browne was often pillored on this blog, we should remember this is an oilman who shunned the tar sands, pulled BP out of the Global Climate Coalition and rebranded it “beyond petroleum.” The book talks about how he repeatedly tried to get repressive regimes to be more transparent about their oil revenues.
Browne’s tenureship at BP resulted in serious failings. But whereas Browne may have been the Sun King who tried to tinge an oil giant green, his successor Tony Hayward is rapidly turning into the tar sands king who will turn it dirty brown.