As BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico worsens by the day, the world's eyes are on the self-proclaimed "green" company. Since the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig, at least 6 million gallons of crude oil have gushed into Gulf waters, destroying fish and wildlife and shutting down fishing operations.
When former CEO Lord Browne announced that BP henceforth stood for "Beyond Petroleum," he emphasized that BP took seriously its identity as an energy company, not just an oil company. Committing the company to exploration of wind and solar power in addition to oil drilling, Browne also committed himself to lower-emissions gasoline. BP earned a reputation for corporate social responsibility, ranking in the Corporate Knights Global 100 in 2005 and 2006.
But a fatal explosion in Texas in 2005 and an oil spill at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska in 2006 revealed lax safety standards and tarnished the company's image. Investigations uncovered a culture of risk-taking and cost-cutting at the expense of worker and environmental safety.
Tony Hayward succeeded Browne after his retirement in 2008, pledging renewed commitment to safety. From the beginning of Hayward's tenure, however, observers questioned his commitment to Browne's vision of making BP a green energy company.
The current crisis in the Gulf calls into question Hayward's commitment to and effectiveness in worker and environmental safety. The crisis could serve as an opportunity for Hayward, an opportunity to rethink BP's values and priorities.
Will the Gulf spill serve as a wake-up call to BP? Will the company realize that it needs to return to its commitment to be a green energy company? Only time will tell.
Lord Browne held out a noble vision for BP. Will Hayward return to that vision and succeed in making it manifest? If not, which oil company will? The first oil company that can make the leap to becoming a green energy company will show the world a desperately needed new way forward.
Margaret Benefiel, Ph.D., author of Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader, works with leaders in health care, business, churches, government, and nonprofits to help them stay true to their souls. Visit her Web site.