Former BP chief outlines several top priorities for combating global warming

L.A. Cicero John Browne

Lord John Browne spoke Thursday at Kresge Auditorium about ways to deal with global warming.

Ten years after he broke ranks with much of the oil industry and delivered a landmark address that acknowledged the link between fossil fuels and global warming, BP Group Chief Executive John Browne returned to Stanford on April 26 to discuss the most urgent steps needed to minimize carbon dioxide emissions.

[Editor's note: The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Browne has resigned from BP after a judge lifted a legal injunction preventing a newspaper from publishing details of his private life and allegations that he misused company resources. Browne rejected the allegations, calling them "full of misleading and erroneous claims," the AP reported. In a statement, Browne said he was stepping down voluntarily "to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and distraction to the company." He had been scheduled to retire from BP this summer, concluding a 41-year career with the company that was once known as British Petroleum but is increasingly identifying with non-petroleum sources of fuel.]

Browne's latest speech was less of a rallying cry to recognize the dangers of global warming than an update on what he has learned in the past 10 years and what he considered some of the most practical ways to approach the problem going forward.

While much of the public consciousness surrounding global warming in developed countries today is focused on gasoline consumption, Browne emphasized the need for cleaner technologies for burning coal, which is not only one of the most polluting sources of fuel but also one of the most commonly used fuels, particularly in developing countries like China.

"The question is not whether coal will be used but if it will be used in a way that reduces its carbon output," said Browne, who called for more research into "carbon capture" technologies that would capture the carbon dioxide produced from burning coal and store it as a future source of fuel. No such carbon capture and storage power plant exists today, although BP has been aggressively funding research.

Browne, a 1981 graduate of the Business School's Sloan Master's Program, also dismissed the fear that regulating carbon dioxide emissions would hurt the world's economies, and said recent history has shown that the economy is far more resilient than most people expect, even withstanding the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"We've had 10 years of strong economic growth in this country and around the world," he said. "I don't think that on Sept. 12, 2001, anyone would have predicted five years of strong growth."

Browne did suggest that governments should play an active role in encouraging more research and development into alternative fuels and making a smooth transition to a world that was less dependent on fossil fuels.

Among his public policy recommendations for tackling global warming is the formation of a multinational entity led by the United States, the European Union and China, which would look into the problem independent of the United Nations or other existing groups. "A new entity without any history would be good," he said.

Browne also said he favors incentives over regulations and sees carbon trading programs that place a cap on the emissions businesses are allowed as an effective way to lower carbon emissions overall. Under such programs, companies receive a fixed number of emissions credits and must purchase more if they exceed their limit. This free market approach makes it expensive to pollute and offers more environmentally responsible companies a way to profit.

BP currently invests more than $1 billion a year to research alternative energy sources such as wind power, and its website today describes its corporate values as "beyond petroleum."

Still, Browne stressed that the company is not advocating that oil or gas be abandoned. His recommendations were more realistic than radical, and more optimistic than oppressive, recognizing that change must be slow and steady, and ultimately must require a shift in individual behavior.

Acknowledging the dramatic shift in attitudes about global warming over the past 10 years, he said, "I've yet to see a similar shift in attitudes to buying cars that are no bigger than you need."

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer.