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The Independent: 'Oil companies mask corporate greed and environmental devastation with very slick PR'

Julia Stephenson
The Independent – United Kingdom; May 11, 2006

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This month's Vanity Fair is a gloriously green confection. Its cover features Julia Roberts swathed in arboreal headgear, a bucolic-looking Al Gore, plus Bobby Kennedy Jr, kneeling on a pile of moss. Hordes of other gorgeously green luminaries are featured within its pages. So imagine my surprise when I spotted Lord John Browne, chairman of BP, gushingly praised for his dazzling eco-friendly credentials.

Burning oil is responsible for global warming. We can't just blame oil companies, they are responding to our insatiable desire for cars, plane travel and energy so we are all culpable – however the amount of greenwashing going on by oil companies is outrageous. My pal Hugo, the Alan B'Stard of the Green Party, and I had a terrible row about it. He insisted that BP, Shell, et al, should be praised because at least they are taking some environmental action compared to most corporations who are doing nothing. I disagree. Oil companies mask corporate greed and environmental devastation with slick PR. BP is responsible for many environmental disasters, from drilling in the world's few remaining ecological wildernesses to human rights abuses. Instead, slick publicity focuses on its eco-friendly image – investments in solar and other renewable energy sources which amount to just 2.6 per cent of its annual budget. It spends far more on advertising, corporate sponsorship and PR.

It runs impressive TV ads about taking responsibility for climate change. But the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline will produce 150 million tonnes of CO2 each year for 40 years, causing untold damage to the climate. In March the Senate Energy Committee praised the Department of the Interior for promoting “environmentally gentle” oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Days later, a BP oil operator discovered signs of a vast oil spill which has had devastating effects on Alaska's environment. In 2002 it was fined pounds 1m by the Health and Safety Executive for serious breaches at its UK refineries, while in 2005,15 workers were killed in an explosion at BP's Texas City refinery. On the anniversary of this disaster, BP diverted adverse publicity by sponsoring the British Museum's Michelangelo Drawings exhibition, just one of many art exhibitions that are sponsored by oil companies in an attempt to launder their reputations.

Oil is a curse that fuels war, poverty and environmental destruction. Yet the companies most responsible are profiting handsomely and they are welcome in many of our top public galleries and museums. Meanwhile, Lord Browne's own salary has soared to pounds 5.6m. Lord Browne may be a great business man, but eco-warrior – I don't think so.

Art Not Oil is an event exploring the damage that oil companies are doing to the planet, and the role art can play in counteracting it. Go to for details

'Oil companies mask corporate greed and environmental devastation with very slick PR'

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