‘Picture This’ extract – 25 years of BP Sponsorship, year by year

27 Jun 2014 jane
The Art of Tobacco, Conrad Atkinson, 1989
The Art of Tobacco, Conrad Atkinson, 1989

Today we focus on the section of our report that outlined BP’s track record 1989 – 2014, the period of BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait Award. Here’s the whole report. 

We have pulled out 25 examples of BP’s worst environmental and human rights disasters and also evidence of dodgy and backroom deals – one for each year for the 25 years of NPG’s sponsorship. Each year’s example is also followed by a figure indicating the steady increase in carbon in the atmosphere – the ‘Parts Per Million’, cited from the Mauna Loa Observatory.

1989 – Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher still had a year to go before she was ousted. The Berlin Wall was brought down. The Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska was the US’s most catastrophic oil spill til BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout, but BP’s role in the Alaskan tragedy needs to be kept centre stage.

In early 1989, artist Conrad Atkinson produced a painting ‘The Art of Tobacco’, about tobacco manufacturer John Player’s sponsorship of the NPG’s Portrait Award. It was John Player’s last gasp (pun intended). Awareness of climate change and environmental impacts of fossil fuels was far less widespread in 1989. At the time, BP was an acceptable sponsorship replacement in a way that the industry can no longer be now, given what we know. 24 years later in 2013, Conrad produced a sister piece, to be featured in the next blog on our report.


Extract from ‘Picture This’ – A Portrait of 25 Years of BP


The figure in brackets after the year refers the annual average level of atmospheric carbon expressed as Parts Per Million.i

1989 (353.07 ppm)

On March 24, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef off the coast of Alaska and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil over the next few days. The oil went on to cover1,300 miles of coastline, and 11,000 square miles of ocean. While the oil company Exxon received much of the public blame, investigative journalist Greg Palast wrote that, “As the principal owner of the Alaska Pipeline and Terminal, BP, not Exxon, was designated by law to prevent oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez from hitting the beach. It was BP’s disastrous failures, more than Exxon’s, that allowed the oil to devastate Alaska’s coast.”ii

1990 (354.35 ppm)

BP was forced to settle in court for waste-dumping into US rivers, paying $2.3 million for discharging waste from its Marcus Hook refinery into the Delaware River. Authorities said BP was discharging excess oil and grease, ammonia, solids, sulfides and various chemicals that reduced the amount of oxygen in the water, changed its acidity and sickened and killed fish. The Environmental Protection Agency said that in the US from 1979 to 1990 BP had violated its wastewater discharge permit 6,500 times.iii

1991 (355.57 ppm)

An explosion at the company’s Ferndale refinery in the US in January killed one person and injured six others. BP was charged with 20 violations of the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act following a six-month investigation and fined $135,710.iv

1992 (356.38 ppm)

In September Margaret Thatcher travelled to Baku to give the Azerbaijan government two cheques on behalf of BP worth $30 million as down payments on Azeri oil and gas fields. Less than one year later Heydar Aliyev took power, after an armed insurrection ousted the country’s elected president, Abulfez Elchibey.v BP has continued to do business with the Aliyev regime to the present day, with oil revenues being used to maintain a repressive power base that stifles democratic dissent. Human Rights Watch said that in 2013 “The Azerbaijani government’s poor record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association dramatically deteriorated during the year. The authorities arrested dozens of political activists on bogus charges, imprisoned critical journalists, broke up several peaceful public demonstrations, and adopted legislation that further restricted fundamental freedoms.”vi

1993 (357.07 ppm)

In March two information brokers were convicted of selling confidential inside information obtained by bribing BP executives. The UK court was told during the trial that the corruption within BP’s procurement department went to a very high level, with millions of pounds in bribes being used to reveal secret information about the company’s planned projects in the North Sea. BP executives created intentional delays in bidding processes so that confidential information could be passed on to other companies by the information brokers.vii

1994 (358.82 ppm)

Over a three year period spanning all of 1994, BP was responsible for the illegal disposal of hazardous waste on Alaska’s North Slope. BP’s contractor Doyon Drilling illegally discharged waste oil, paint thinner and other toxic and hazardous substances by injecting them down the outer rim of the oil wells. BP Exploration Alaska (BPXA) failed to report the illegal injections when it learned of the conduct and in 1999 agreed to resolve charges related to the illegal dumping for $22 million.viii

1995 (360.80 ppm)

BP signed a major deal with the Algerian military regime 1995, only three years after the military coup that cancelled the first multi-party legislative elections in Algeria since independence from French colonial rule.ix The contract was signed while a brutal civil war was raging, with systematic violence from both the state and Islamist fundamentalists taking more than 150,000 lives and resulting in tens of thousands of disappearances.x The joint venture was worth $3 billion, giving BP the right to exploit gas deposits around the oasis town of In Salah in the Sahara for the next 30 years.xi

1996 (362.59 ppm)

A Colombian paramilitary brigade created a regime of terror along the route of the Ocensa pipeline, in which BP was a dominant shareholder. Documents revealed that the Ocensa pipeline consortium and an Israeli private security company discussed arming the brigade with attack helicopters and guns, while it was under investigation for the execution of civilians. In 1998 the public relations adviser to BP in Colombia, told the Guardian that the sale of military equipment and the general relationship with the brigade were ‘unavoidable.’xii

1997 (363.71 ppm)

BP’s 800 kilometre Ocensa pipeline in Colombia came into operation, after destroying crops, fishponds and local livelihoods. Hundreds of residents were forced into destitution and displaced to cities. Rural Colombian farmers stood up to intense repression and death threats, to eventually take BP to court. In 2006, BP accepted responsibility and agreed to a multi-million pound settlement.xiii

1999 (366.65 ppm)

Whistle-blowers criticised the management of an Alaskan pipeline being operated by a company, Alyeska, of which BP owned 50%. A group of senior employees spoke to the Guardian about “impending disaster and prepared evidence of falsified inspection reports, a culture of intimidation, and “lip service” to safety…. Collectively, the whistle-blowers describe a life-threatening “gamble” by Alyeska with the people of Alaska and its fragile environment. A battle between safety and the bottom line – one where executives and their contractors, concerned about budgets and bonuses, actively undermine and intimidate technicians and inspectors given the task of upholding safety.”xiv

2000 (369.52 ppm)

In 2000 British Petroleum officially rebranded itself as BP, with a new helios logo suggesting green energy, and promoting the fact that it was ‘Beyond Petroleum’. The cost of the Helios logo design and its rollout was rumoured to over $100, 000, 000 leading some to state that BP had spent more on telling people about its green credentials than it actually spent on renewable energy itself.xv However, in 2011 BP announced that it was selling its solar unit.xvi

2001 (371.13 ppm)

Five people were killed and at least 40 severely injured in a series of kerosene lamp and stove explosions in February in eight villages scattered across the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea. Lanterns and stoves exploded when lit, destroying several homes and at least part of one village. The kerosene was contaminated at BP’s Papua New Guinea facilities.xvii

2002 (373.22 ppm)

Five months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, BP (and other oil companies) lobbied UK government officials to gain greater control over Iraq’s oil reserves. According to a report by The Independent, “Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq’s enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair’s military commitment to US plans for regime change… The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq “post regime change”. Its minutes state: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.””xviii

2003 (375.77 ppm)

In September BP and a group of Russian businessmen, announced the creation of a strategic partnership to jointly hold their oil assets in Russia and Ukraine and creation of TNK-ВР. The TNK- BP joint venture was to be plagued by a decade of bitter internal fightingxix and meant that BP’s oil & gas fields in Russia became responsible for approximately a quarter of their global oil production and the company’s most profitable arm, in part because of its low expenditure on health, safety and environmental protection. This vital part of BP was dramatically less transparent than the rest of the company but it was publicly criticised for its part in TNK-BP’s appalling pollution of the Ob and Yenisei river basins in Siberia.xx

2004 (377.49 ppm)

300 NGOs and individuals wrote a letter to then-CEO of BP John Browne to express their “mounting concerns” over the company’s failure to meet human rights commitments made two years ago in a multibillion pound Liquified Natural Gas project in Papua New Guinea. The signatories, including a former BP Indonesia vice-president who oversaw much of the project’s early development, claimed there was a “worrying lack of transparency” in the Tangguh development in the eastern Papua province and “a failure to acknowledge the disturbing realities of the wider west Papua context.”xxi

2005 (379.80 ppm)

In March an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery in the USA killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 others. BP admitted that “deeply disturbing” internal mistakes were responsible for the explosion. BP pleaded guilty to a felony charge for violating the federal Clean Air Act, agreed to serve a three-year probationary period and to pay a $50 million fine.xxii

2006 (381.90 ppm)

267,000 gallons of spilled oil was discovered in March at the Prudhoe Bay field, the largest ever spill on Alaska’s North Slope region. In the court case brought against BP prosecutors said BP managers failed to heed “many red flags and warning signs” that key pipelines were being eroded. In 2011 federal officials announced that BP would pay $25 million in civil fines to settle charges arising from two spills from its network of pipelines in Alaska in 2006 and from a willful failure to comply with a government order to properly maintain the pipelines to prevent corrosion.xxiii

2007 (383.76 ppm)

BP announced a move into controversial tar sands production in Canada, taking a 50% share in Husky’s Sunrise oil field in Alberta.xxiv Tar sands extraction has been the subject of intense criticism for their climate impact, their impact on Canada’s Boreal forest, and the devastation caused to indigenous communities. Addressing the BP board at the 2011 AGM, Clayton Thomas Mueller representing the Indigenous Environment Network said:

 “Fort McKay First Nation is situated in the heart of the oilsands.  You can go in any direction and within twenty minutes, you will find an oilsands plant. How does the Husky Sunrise project impact us?  Well to start with, there are several parcels of land dedicated to the use of trappers from the first nation.  Because the animals have disappeared, these traplines are no longer used for trapping.

These traplines have become islands of cultural identity.  We use them to escape the industrial activity and as a place to teach our children traditional ways.  We are a people whose very cultural identity is linked to the land.  The Husky Project has interfered with traplines in the area, reducing access for the local people and taking away the peace of the bush life.  High traffic volumes and industrial activity have taken away the peace and quiet and in some cases, taken the land itself.

SAGDxxv projects are touted as ‘clean oil’ but in fact the sheer volumes of water used impacts the surrounding land, drying up the muskeg and reducing animal habitat. We still get the air pollution and with it more sickness.”xxvi

2008 (385.59 ppm)

BP’s drilling deal with Gadaffi was finalised in May 2008, and in September the company began exploring in Libya – what it described “one of themost ambitious such projects ever embarked upon by our industry anywhere.” BP used its close relationship with Tony Blair, MI6 and the Foreign Office to break into Libya’s enormous oil reserves. Company executives knew they were doing business with a dictator – many protestors were killed in the February 2006 protests in Benghazi. Yet BP publicity provided a glossy image of Libya, emphasising safety, wealth and freedom. Even when the intense fighting began in spring 2011 and reports emerged of tanks crushing civilians, BP remained “committed to improving the business in Libya regardless of the political situation”.xxvii

2009 (387.37 ppm)

In 2009, BP obtained a production contract during the 2009/2010 Iraqi oil services contracts tender to develop the Rumaila field. But BP was later accused of “backroom deals” that resulted in terms that were less favourable to the people of Iraq. Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, published the original and amended contracts and said: “Iraq’s oil auctions were portrayed as a model of transparency and a negotiating victory for the Iraqi government. Now we see the reality was the opposite: a backroom deal that gave BP a stranglehold on the Iraqi economy, and even influence over the decisions of Opec.”xxviii

2010 (389.95 ppm)

In April the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers on board. Oil gushed into the ocean until the 15 July when the well was capped. The US government claims that 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled in the offshore disaster, while BP estimates a leakage of 3.26 million barrels during the three-month period it took to cap the blowout.xxix

2011 (391.62 ppm)

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed BP officials discussing how to influence the work of scientists undertaking supposedly independent research into the impacts of the Gulf Spill. Greenpeace US research director Kert Davies said the oil company had crossed a line. “It’s outrageous to see these BP executives discussing how they might manipulate the science programme. Their motivation last summer is abundantly clear. They wanted control of the science.”xxx

2012 (393.82 ppm)

Two scientists accused BP of an attack on academic freedom after they subpoenaed thousands of confidential emails relating to the Gulf of Mexico disaster. The scientists wrote: “BP claimed that it needed to better understand our findings because billions of dollars in fines are potentially at stake. So we produced more than 50,000 pages of documents, raw data, reports, and algorithms used in our research — everything BP would need to analyze and confirm our findings. But BP still demanded access to our private communications. Our concern is not simply invasion of privacy, but the erosion of the scientific deliberative process.”xxxi

2013 (396.48 ppm)

In 2013 William Hague flew to Azerbaijan to support BP in the signing of the final investment decision for the BP operated gas field Shah Deniz 2.xxxii The gas extracted from Shah Deniz 2 will feed the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline – a piece of infrastructure that will stretch from Azerbaijan to Italy and pump over a billion tones of co2 into the atmosphere. For the people living along the pipeline it will mean environmental destruction, loss of livelihoods and heavy repression along the militarized route. In addition it will further entrench the Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev.xxxiii While Hague and BP CEO Bob Dudley were shaking hands with Aliyev, the Chairman of Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, Anar Mammadli, was being arrested on false charges.xxxiv He was later jailed for five and a half years. Mammadli’s serious criticisms of the Presidential elections were believed to be the real reason for his imprisonment.

2014 (ppm data not yet available)

In March BP’s Whiting refinery in Indiana spilled between 470 and 1228 gallons of crude oil into Lake Michigan, a drinking water source for some seven million Chicago residentsxxxv The refinery has also been criticised for being responsible for huge black mountains of ‘high–sulfur, high-carbon risk petcoke’ along the Calumet River, a by-product of tar sands production.xxxvi



i Annual Data | Atmospheric CO2 from the Mauna Loa Observatory –

ii ‘BP, not Exxon, caused the Exxon Valdez disaster,” Greg Palast, 24 March 2014.

iii BP Oil to Pay $2.3 Million for Polluting River,’ Associated Press, 23 October 1990.$2-3-Million-for-Polluting-River/id-1368015216f9460e2ab8d96c07f2dce9

iv BP Refinery Draws Record Safety Violation Fine for January Explosion.’ Associated Press, 12 July 1991.

v ‘Azerbaijan’s Riches Alter the Chessboard,’ Washington Post, 4 October 1998.

vi ‘Human Rights Watch – World Report 2014 – Azerbaijan.’

vii ‘Brokers convicted in BP corruption trial: Court is told of industrial spies rigging tendering system in North Sea oil contracting business,’ Independent, 27 March 1993.

viii BP Exploration [Alaska] Pleads Guilty To Hazardous Substance Crime Will Pay $22 Million, Establish Nationwide Environmental Management System,’ Environmental Protection Agency, 23 September 1999.!OpenDocument&Start=5.8&Count=5&Expand=5.9

ix Algeria and the Arab Spring,’ Hamza Hamouchene, Open Democracy, 25 May 2012.

x ‘Algeria Under Bouteflika -Civil Strife and National Reconciliation,’ Rachid Tlemçani, Carneigie papers, February 2008.

xi ‘Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed,’ Martin Evans and John Phillips, 2008, Yale University Press, page 253

xii BP hands ‘tarred in pipeline dirty war.’ Guardian, 17 October 1998.

xiii For details of the court case of the Colombian Farmers against BP, see the Leigh Day & Co website –.

xiv Safety versus the bottom line Whistleblowers allege that inspection reports have been falsified and only luck has prevented a pipeline spill,’ Guardian, 12 July 1999.

xv ‘BP Goes Green,’ BBC News, 24 July 2000.

xvi BP Solar Business Exit Counters Trend by Google, Buffett, Total,’ Bloomberg, 21 December 2011.

xvii BP to compensate kerosene victims,’ CNN News, 12 March 2001.

xviii Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq,’ Independent, 19 April 2011.

xix ‘Putin Says He Warned BP of TNK Joint Venture Fighting (Update1),’ Bloomberg, 31 May 2008.

xx TNK-BP Says Oil Spills ‘Inherited’; Shares Fall on Putin Rebuke,’ Bloomberg, 20 April 2012.

xxi 300 protesters remind BP of Indonesia pledge,’ Guardian, 9 December 2004.

xxii BP admits blame for Texas oil disaster.’ Guardian 18 May 2005.

xxiii ‘BP Is Fined $25 Million for ’06 Spills at Pipelines,’ New York Times, 3 May 2011.

xxiv BP to pump billions into oil sands despite green worries and high costs,’ Guardian, 6 December 2007.

xxv Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage – a particular method of extracting tar sands.

xxvi ‘BP Overwhelmed by Criticism at AGM,’ 15 April 2011, UK Tar Sands Network.

xxvii How BP made friends with Mu’ammar Gaddafi,’ 23 February 2011, Platform blog.

xxviii ‘BP ‘has gained stranglehold over Iraq’ after oilfield deal is rewritten,’ Guardian, 31 July 2011

xxix ‘Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: BP Accused of Lying About Spill Size,’ International Business Times, 1 October 2013.

xxx ‘Emails expose BP’s attempts to control research into impact of Gulf oil spill,’ Guardian 15 April 2011.

xxxi ‘Science out of context,’ Boston Globe, 3 June 2012.

xxxii Hague’s Azerbaijan gas pipeline deal attacked,’ The Independent, 17 December 2013.

xxxiii ‘Europes Gas Grab – The Euro Caspian Mega Pipeline,’ Platform website, 15 August 2013.

xxxiv Azerbaijan detains election watchdog chief,’ Reuters, 17 December 2013.

xxxv ‘BP Doubles Initial Size Estimate of Lake Michigan Oil Spill,’ Huffington Post, 27 March 2014.

xxxvi ‘BP oil refinery waste piles up on Southeast Side,’ Chicago Tribune, 18 October 2013.

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