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BP Is Not Woke. It’s an Imperialist Success Story.

The history of fossil fuels is a history of extortion and injustice.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Britain’s Labour Party Secretary of State for Energy Tony Benn (center) at a BP refinery in 1975

Bernard Looney, named CEO of the multinational fossil fuel conglomerate BP last fall, has one or two things he’d like you to know. “I hope it goes without saying, I absolutely condemn racial injustice in all forms,” Looney wrote in an email sent out to the company’s global team and then, on June 1, posted—like all heartfelt messages of solidarity—to LinkedIn. “Many of you are probably not aware,” he continued, that BP was a “major contributor” to the building of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. BP, he says, backs a number of efforts “aimed at trying to get to the root of deep inequities that exist in our society. If we could address some of the basics—like access to education—we might find ways to help heal some of these deep divisions once and for all. I want bp to be right there in the mix—trying to help where we can. It is who we are, and part of our history.” 

Is it? Fossil fuels’ rise and reign is a story of white supremacy: of Western powers and corporations claiming resources from the global south and maintaining access to them through imperial might. At times, that has looked like Britain treating the Middle East as its empire’s gas station. At others, it took the form of CIA-backed coups. The industry’s funding of denial and delay of climate action in recent decades, through bodies like the Global Climate Coalition, which BP left in 1996, and the American Petroleum Institute, to which BP still gives, has bought it time to keep pouring greenhouse gases into the air. Cruelly, the places many fuels have been extracted abroad, the Middle East being only one example, are already shouldering the worst of the climate crisis, as black and brown communities stateside are disproportionately burdened, relative to wealthier white communities, with leaky, polluting fossil fuel infrastructure in their backyards. 

The history BP’s current CEO now claims as anti-racist began in 1901, when a well-off British land speculator named William Knox D’Arcy paid Persia’s waning monarchy for the exclusive rights to explore, drill, and profit from the country’s oil. That deal laid the groundwork for the concession system that would give U.S. and European companies control over oil markets for decades to come. D’Arcy became director of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909. To meet growing oil demand from its military and domestic economy, Britain bought a 51 percent equity stake in APOC, turning it into Britain’s national oil company just as World War I broke out. As described in historian Giuliano Garavini’s The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the 20th Century, the entire arrangement was premised on the company hoarding profits as it made paltry payments to the Iranian government, paying as little as possible to get oil out of the ground. APOC’s highest-paid workers were predominately either European or Indian, while local workers were crammed into tents or shantytowns and paid miserable wages that were periodically cut to maintain discipline. “According to the company,” a 1924 petition for better conditions at the sprawling APOC refinery in Abadan wrote, “paying the full salary stops the workers from staying at work during the summer when the weather is hot.”  

When the Shah of Iran suddenly revoked APOC’s concession in 1932—citing its grossly skewed distribution of profits—parties broke out in the streets of Tehran. Britain quickly turned to an early version of the World Trade Organization—the League of Nations’ Permanent Court of International Justice—to enforce its property rights. The company told the world about all the good it was doing for the people of Iran—building roads, providing jobs, installing infrastructure—and Britain won its case, securing a new concession set to last for 70 years; the company was also rebranded as the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. In 1949, as Iranian oil accounted for some 75 percent of AIOC’s profits, the company paid the Iranian government in royalties roughly half of what it paid to the U.K. government in taxes alone, all as Brits received a deep discount on oil that Iranians paid market prices for. As ever, Britain’s unfettered access to Iran’s oil was premised on the threat of state violence. “As late as 1946,” Garavini writes, “the British Foreign ministry and ministry of Power had contemplated various options to retain control of Iranian oil [including] the use of force. It could be decided that if the Persians would not keep order we would.” 

In March 1951, Iranian member of parliament Mohammad Mossadegh led the charge to nationalize AIOC, which was followed by a strike-turned-national uprising out of Abadan. A month later, Mossadegh was named prime minister, and the country’s oil industry was nationalized on May 1. After a two-year crusade by Britain and the United States to oust Mossadegh, including an embargo and failed case before the International Court of Justice, the CIA organized a coup under the codename Operation Ajax in 1953, removing Mossadegh from office and restoring the Shah to power. The new pro-Western government quickly restored U.S. and British access to Iran’s oil, and AIOC rebranded as British Petroleum.

BP’s racist legacy reaches well beyond Iran. In calling out racism among BP managers in 1988, U.S. refinery workers with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union penned a report connecting the company managers’ racism stateside with its support for South Africa’s apartheid regime abroad, where it was “one of the largest industrial concerns” in that country. As a major oil importer, BP quite literally helped fuel apartheid by selling diesel fuel, gasoline, aviation gasoline, bunker fuel, and lubricants to South Africa’s military and police force. The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010—the result, in large part, of management cutting corners and ignoring safety warnings—devastated the livelihoods of black fishermen on the Gulf Coast, spewing out oil for 87 days. Ten years on, that industry still hasn’t fully recovered. 

In 2013, the company spent $13 million fighting a modest carbon-pricing measure in Washington State. The initiative would have invested the revenue from a gradually rising $15-per-ton fee on carbon dioxide into a range of clean energy programs and climate and environmental justice priorities. Thirty-five percent of those funds would have been allocated toward projects with “direct and meaningful” benefits to the largely black and brown communities in “pollution and health action areas,” with disbursements overseen by a Public Oversight Board. 

When he took over as CEO earlier this year, Looney made headlines with a flashy pledge to cut the company’s emissions to net-zero by 2050, promising to bring BP fully into the twenty-first century. As documents leaked to Drilled News and released on its newsletter this week show, that strategy involves decades of further investment in natural gas, which still emits plenty of greenhouse gases; the strategy is also heavier on rhetoric than concrete commitments. In a new analysis by Rystad Energy, BP—a company that reported almost $280 billion in revenue in 2019has invested less than $1 billion a year in no-carbon fuels since 2010, and often far less. Internally, company leadership is much more frank about its commitment to fossil fuels. “We’re probably going to be in oil and gas for decades to come,” Looney said in a video seen by Drilled News, referencing the need to pay shareholders, “because how else is that $8 billion dividend going to get serviced?”

In order to meet the challenges of the moment, Looney says, BP must “live our purpose,” which is, allegedly, “about improving people’s lives.” Make no mistake: BP’s purpose is to dig up and burn fossil fuels, a fact reflected in its spending habits. So long as that’s the case—and there’s no reason to suspect it’s changing—BP will never be on the side of either decarbonization or racial justice.