Bernard Looney: BP’s woke warrior detoxifies oil

Bernard Looney wants to turn the oil giant he heads into an environmentally friendly force for good. He’s not the first to try, but there’s good reason to take him seriously. Jane Lewis reports.

Bernard Looney © BP
Bernard Looney tells it like it is
(Image credit: © BP)

What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you’re called Bernard Looney, says The Sunday Times. BP’s new boss admits his name has sometimes caused amusement. “I lived in America for nine years, says Looney. They say Ber-nard and I’d correct them and say it’s Ber-nard. A guy from Mississippi said, ‘Listen, when your last name is Looney, who cares what your first name is?’”

An Irishman who grew up on a dairy farm in County Kerry, Looney, 49, has the gift of the blarney. His observations on social media are admired by a rising generation of business hopefuls who rate his perspicacity. He often talks about “the need to challenge old habits to run a better business”, says the FT, regularly consulting a “20-something-year-old reverse mentor” to buff up his “woke” credentials. One of Looney’s biggest assets is his perceived credibility. When he halved BP’s dividend last week, it was a big blow for income investors, but the shares still jumped on the view that the CEO was telling it like it is.

Detoxifying the oil brand

Lately, this career oilman has “confounded” environmental critics “with the scale of his plans to turn the oil giant green” – outlining a raft of strategies to turn BP into a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050, including halving oil and gas production by 2030, says The Sunday Times. Given, as Looney admits, that the business is “97% hydrocarbons today”, there’s “a mountain to climb to detoxify the brand”.

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Critics point out that we’ve been here before. In 2001, Lord Browne “infamously” rebranded the oil giant “beyond petroleum” – in a show of zeal that waned with the rising oil price and that was completely whacked by two BP-induced environmental disasters: the 2006 Alaska oil spill and the Deepwater Horizon disaster four years later, which “unleashed the largest oil spill in marine history”.

One thing that persuades people Looney is serious about building “a very different kind of energy business” is that he witnessed the carnage at first hand. He was “drafted in” to help find a way to plug the well. “I was in Houston for 60 days straight… To see what happened was very, very difficult,” he told the Irish Independent in 2018. “It was without doubt the most challenging time of my career.”

The young turtle masters Ninjutsu

Looney has come a long way from his rural roots, having been raised on a “subsistence” farm, but he apparently remains a keen tractor spotter. The youngest of five, he says he was “the gopher” while growing up, bringing his siblings “whichever tool they needed”. When he won a place to read engineering at University College, Dublin, he was the first in the family to go to university, says the Financial Times. Looney joined BP as a drilling engineer in 1991 and was identified as “leadership material” early on by Lord Browne, joining “a cohort of rapid risers” who were dubbed “turtles” after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – springing into action “if help was needed”.

Recently divorced, with no children, Looney appears almost wedded to BP. “This is a company that has given me everything I have in my life,” he once observed. His image is “well-crafted” (“I’ve drunk the Looney Kool-Aid,” admits one investor), but he is “widely liked and respected both inside and outside of the company” – internal fans are referred to as “the Bernardettes”. According to one colleague, Looney “wants to say something and mean it”. For the moment, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.