Lord Browne: the man who went from BP and the North Sea to net zero | John Browne

John Browne is used to being an oil trade contrarian. It’s 25 years since the former BP chief govt made the landmark speech to his alma mater at Stanford University wherein he grew to become the first chief from Big Oil to hyperlink hydrocarbon emissions and local weather change. He was denounced by many in his commerce. “I was told I had left the oil industry church; I hadn’t realised there was one,” he says drily.

Now Lord Browne of Madingley is at odds along with his former friends once more, agreeing with Rishi Sunak’s windfall tax on North Sea oil and fuel operators to assist fund a £15bn cost-of-living package deal for households. Current BP chief Bernard Looney’s dealing with of the public debate has been so clumsy that the tax is being known as the “Looney levy”.

“It’s right and proper: those windfalls belong to the nation, not to companies,” says Browne. “I’ve had windfall taxes exercised on me by many jurisdictions in many places.”

However, the crossbench peer warns: “Profits should be taxed, but costs need to be thought through very carefully because you should get the ability to write off your capital as you go forward, as well as your operating costs. And designing a system which allows you to do all that properly – it has always been complex. When you add a windfall profits tax on top, we just need to be careful how you do it.”

He remembers a windfall tax in the early Nineteen Eighties which led to firms paying greater than 100% tax. “The government took forever to get it organised and didn’t trust anybody to tell them what the price of oil was, so fixed the tax higher than it was. So there are issues like that: the costs need to be thought through. But I think it’s right to be helping people with their bills.”

His conveniently timed conversion to the explanation for local weather change has been met with some scepticism. It included a failed rebranding of BP as “Beyond Petroleum” that some labelled as greenwashing. The man the monetary press dubbed the “Sun King” racked up 41 years at BP, the latter 12 as chief govt till 2007. His buccaneering dealmaking cemented the oil large’s place in the world recreation – together with its controversial growth in Russia – whereas he acquired thousands and thousands in pay and bonuses every year. These days he’s busy along with his newest enterprise, the inexperienced investor BeyondNetZero.


Age 74
Family “Successfully developing a new partnership.”
Education The King’s School, Ely; MA in physics from St John’s College, Cambridge; and an MS in business from Stanford University, California.
Pay “Nowadays, I’m quite self-sufficient.”
Last vacation Venice, “my favourite place on earth” (the place he has a second residence).
Best recommendation he has been given “My father once told me to ‘get a proper job’. As a result, I entered BP as a trainee, and the rest is history.”
Biggest career mistake “Not coming out as gay earlier.”
Word he overuses “I love the word ‘beyond’. My first book was called Beyond Business, and the climate growth venture I co-founded and now chair is called BeyondNetZero.”
How he relaxes “The ballet, the theatre, opera and art. And exciting people, and interesting places.”

We meet at Browne’s townhouse in Chelsea simply as Sunak is delivering his mini-budget. His personal library is crammed floor-to-ceiling with tomes on each period of artwork. At the high of the spiral staircase hangs a set of portraits of Browne by the acclaimed German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. There’s Browne dappled, mirrored in a mirror and Browne standing by a chopping board, a half-cut crusty loaf in entrance of him (“I can’t even cook,” he laughs). He’s a slight determine, in a pink shirt and blue blazer, with tortoiseshell glasses.

In delight of place is a framed image of Browne’s late mom, clutching a shiny pink purse. She performed an outsize function in his company career: Browne claimed it was to shield his mom, an Auschwitz survivor, that he hid his homosexuality for many years.

He was outed from “deep deep in the closet” by the Mail on Sunday, which printed a kiss-and-tell from his Brazilian lover, Jeff Chevalier, a former escort. The episode led to his resignation from BP. Does he have any regrets? “Tons. I wish I could have come out earlier. The advice from my mother [was] don’t make yourself a minority … never tell anyone a secret because they’ll use it against you. These are important things that a Holocaust survivor tells their son,” he says. He feared he can be a “pariah”.

Browne was discovered to have lied about how he met Chevalier, telling his legal professionals that they had met jogging in Battersea Park somewhat than on-line. “It was a silly fib. Such a bad error of judgment.” What would he say to Chevalier now? “I’d wish him good day. I don’t bear grudges.”

Still, Browne says his ignominious departure from BP opened up new alternatives for him. “No one would have offered me a job in a public company, and I didn’t want to ask … there certainly was the silver lining in that cloud.”

Fifteen years of chairmanships, authorities work and board positions adopted. His cultural roles have taken in the Tate, non-profit theatre the Donmar Warehouse and now the Courtauld Institute of Art. The delight of his personal assortment is a Sixteenth-century Titian. He’s grow to be an creator, and is a couple of thousand phrases deep into his newest work, impressed by a podcast collection linked to the Cop26 local weather convention.

BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ logo at a petrol station
BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ rebrand attracted criticisms for greenwashing. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

His business positions have included the board of the Chinese tech agency Huawei, which he left when Britain adopted America in stymieing its operations (“technically what they were doing was fantastic”). Then there was the fracker Cuadrilla. The authorities has opened the door a crack since the power disaster to the know-how, however Browne says: “We could have generated gas supplies, which would have helped a lot, but maybe it’s just too late.”

His principal position now could be chairman of BeyondNetZero. He arrange the business – which is led by Lance Uggla, who based the analysis agency IHS Markit – final year to put money into firms that assist handle and measure emissions, decarbonise property, enhance power effectivity and speed up the round economic system. So far its pursuits vary from a photo voltaic specialist working in sub-Saharan Africa to a vertical farm project deliberate for America.

But does this make him an oil trade turncoat? He laughs on recalling being dubbed a “tree-hugger” for championing renewables.

Shell confronted demonstrations at its shareholder meeting final week, with protesters claiming it’s not investing quick sufficient in renewable tasks. How can oil and fuel chiefs successfully steadiness previous and new applied sciences? “People would look for greenwashing at every moment: if you said ‘we’re spending a billion dollars’, they’d say ‘spend two billion’. Striking the balance is a continuous debate.”

After a political clamour, BP pledged to divest Russian property it scooped up throughout Browne’s period. Should he have taken BP to Russia? “In 2003 Putin made a state visit to the UK. We had a banquet with the Queen and Prince Philip. He was regarded as a reformer who was going to open up Russia and be good for security.” Over a decade, Browne ceaselessly met Putin and resisted his calls for to give the Russians majority possession of BP’s then three way partnership with TNK. “He was like a plate-of-glass wall, very difficult to read. With virtually no expressions of like or dislike, which you could expect from a trained spy.”

More just lately, Browne labored with LetterOne, managed by the oligarch Mikhail Fridman, who is now topic to sanctions. Perhaps the west ought to have seen Russia’s lethal advance coming? “It looks obvious in retrospect but it’s like if you go on to the street and ask people, ‘why didn’t you cash out of your ISA three months ago? Surely it was obvious’.”

Browne stays plugged into BP, irregularly eating out with Looney (they take it in turns to pay). He’s eager not to grow to be an overbearing Sir Alex Ferguson determine, lurking round the business. He says Looney has accomplished a “very good job at portraying his strategy and he’s delivering it bit by bit”. Looney was one in all Browne’s remaining “turtles” – keen acolytes earmarked for high jobs.

Tony Hayward, a fellow turtle and Browne’s rapid successor, was in cost throughout the deadly Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Browne was in a lodge in Dallas, Texas, that day: “It was a tragedy. I was watching the TV … that really was an existential threat to BP.” Five years earlier Browne had witnessed our bodies being pulled out after the Texas City Refinery explosion. He has confronted accusations that he fostered a tradition which led to Deepwater Horizon. “Everyone in BP says that’s not true. That was nothing other than pure speculation.”

Browne is ploughing on in his renewables mission. He concludes: “We are on the edge of an industrial revolution if you believe, as I do, that everything we do has to be orientated around reducing emissions to get to net zero. The reason is not so much the result on the planet, but people. If we let temperatures rip we’ll probably experience a very large amount of migration and death because of flooding and heat stress to agricultural yield. This is about saving at least a basic subsistence of all humanity.”

There is not any calm sundown to the Sun King’s stormy career.

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