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The Real Reason BP Is Getting Greener

For fossil fuel companies like BP, Exxon, and Shell, slashing production is good business.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

BP seems nervous about being a fossil fuel company these days. On Tuesday, the 12th most carbon-intensive company in the world announced plans to slash its oil and gas production by 40 percent over next decade, the largest such cut an oil and gas company has ever announced. It’ll also slash its dividend payouts to shareholders by 50 percent and will increase its spending on low-carbon energy tenfold to $5 billion per year by 2030. 

It’s a big deal; fossil fuel industry rhetoric on environmental stewardship doesn’t tend to come with pledges to meaningfully cut into the bread and butter, opting instead for vague promises about dates far in the future. Greenpeace responded to BP’s news with measured optimism. Kelly Trout, senior research analyst at Oil Change International, said in a cautious press statement, “BP has changed the game, but in a league with zero climate credibility,” adding that the announcement was “an important signal to the rest of the industry that the only credible way to cut pollution is to cut fossil fuel production.” 

It’s worth considering BP’s announcement in the context of the industry as a whole, where—amid a historic downturn—cuts of all kinds are becoming ubiquitous; just yesterday, ExxonMobil said that a fifth of its fuel reserves could be wiped out by low oil prices. Is BP getting greener or just putting a green spin on its response to long-term market trends that would soon come for its profits anyway? 

Fossil fuel exploration and production companies, a recent analysis from Rystad Energy found, were at a four-year high for Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings in the second quarter of 2020, the industry’s worst quarter ever. Larger integrated oil and gas producers have been better insulated from the downturn but are still taking big hits. ExxonMobil reported its second straight quarter of losses—the first time that’s happened this century. It’ll be enforcing cuts of its own, albeit cuts less green than BP’s. Now just a tenth of the size of Apple and trading at its lowest levels since 1977, Exxon will be cutting its capital spending through the rest of the year, including taking most of its shale drilling rigs in the Permian Basin offline, aiming to keep just 15 by year’s end. It also announced this week that it will suspend its contribution to its employee retirement plans starting in October, all while continuing to pay out its massive $15 billion worth of annual dividends to shareholders. The choice to keep those payments coming is raising eyebrows among Wall Street analysts, who have cooled on the formerly hot stock in recent years. “The company wants to invest in energy projects with long-term benefits while trying to satisfy shareholders with immediate and consistent dividend payouts,” an analyst for Stone Fox Capital wrote yesterday. “The end result is the need to constantly pump oil and natural gas to keep cash flowing into their bank accounts.”

Chevron, which also reported major losses in the second quarter, is writing down $5.7 billion worth of oil and gas properties. Shell recently announced a dividend cut even bigger than BP’s, of 66 percent—the first time it had made any cuts at all since World War II. After taking heavy losses, it also plans to cut back on production by 25 percent this year and slash 2,200 jobs. These companies’ production cuts are in the industry’s best interest. With prices and demand for oil still low, continuing to enthusiastically pump out oil and gas at pre-crash levels only floods the market with supply it doesn’t need, suppressing fuel prices and, with it, profits.

But BP’s approach is still unusual, according to Andrew Grant, head of oil and gas at the UK-based think tank CarbonTracker. “BP’s announcement clearly differentiates it from peers not just in messaging, but also in strategy going forward,” he said in an email. “While the pain has been widespread across the industry and some companies have shut in production at certain fields (some of which is now starting to be reversed), BP is alone in actually targeting production cuts in the coming years, let alone of such scale.”

European-based oil producers like BP and Shell have always operated a bit differently than their United States counterparts, contending with a different regulatory environment, a more aggressive European regulatory environment, and more widespread political concern among the public and policymakers over climate change. Recently, that gulf has widened. “In modern times, there’s never been a bigger strategic spread among the major companies as exists today,” said The Prize author and industry consultant Dan Yergin. “They’re all looking at the same evidence, but how they define their role is quite different. And it does seem that the great differentiator is the Atlantic Ocean.”

BP got out of the climate denial and obstruction game back in the 1990s, long before ExxonMobil, and since then has looked to shape climate policy on their terms rather than obstruct it outright. Their savvy messaging on climate has helped sell the idea of carbon markets—a moderate emissions-reduction measure that would avoid regulations threatening to clamp down harder on BP’s core business. 

Part of the company’s new plan includes partnering with “10-15 cities” on decarbonization. It appears to have gotten a head start. Last week, Vice’s Geoff Diembecki reported that the company will pay the salaries of two city employees in Houston, Texas, tasked with reducing the city’s massive carbon footprint as a longstanding oil and gas hub. Per a press release from Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, BP will be a “strategic planning and technical partner on the [Climate Action Plan] for the next four years.” This could all be a pretty good deal for BP, which could  benefit if it gets contracts to build charging stations to support the city’s fleet or produce the 5 million megawatt hours of solar power Houston has pledged to produce over the next three decades.

Ultimately, BP wants any transition to renewables to happen on BP’s terms: “It is simply not possible to transform a company that is 110 years old by ... shutting off the taps in one area and simply pivoting 100 percent into the new,” BP Chief Executive Officer Bernard Looney told reporters this week. “This is about making sure we can continue to generate the cash flows from that base business that provides the fuel that is necessary to enable the transformation.” With precious little time left, it’s worth asking whether the world should have to wait for BP’s self-managed transitionhowever much faster they might be than their laggard peers.