Lord Brown: The Man Who Went from BP and the North Sea to Net Zero | John Brown
yOhn Brown used to be a competitor in the oil industry. It’s been 25 years since the former BP CEO made a landmark speech before his alma mater at Stanford University, where he became the first Big Oil leader to link hydrocarbon emissions and climate change. He was denounced by many in his trade. “I was told I had left the Church of the Oil Industry; I didn’t realize there was one,” he said dryly.
Now Lord Brown of Madingley is at odds with his former peers once again, agreeing to a surprise Rishi Sunak tax on North Sea oil and gas operators to help fund a £15 billion cost-of-living package for families. The approach of Bernard Looney, BP’s current president, to the public controversy has been so clumsy that the tax has been dubbed the “loonie tax”.
“It’s true and appropriate: These windfalls belong to the nation, not businesses,” Brown says. “I have been levied unexpected taxes by many jurisdictions in many places.”
However, the cross-country counterpart warns: “The profits should be taxed, but the costs should be thought out very carefully because you have to get the ability to write off your capital as you go forward, as well as your operating costs. And design a system that allows you to do all of that. Right – it’s always been complicated. When you add an unexpected dividend tax on top, we just need to be careful how you do it.”
He remembers an unexpected tax in the early 1980s that led to companies paying more than 100% tax. The government took too long to regulate it and didn’t trust anyone to tell them the price of oil, so they set the tax higher than it was. So there are issues like this: costs need to be thought through. But I think it’s right to help people with their bills.”
His timely turn on the issue of climate change has been met with some skepticism. It included a failed rebranding of BP to “Beyond Petroleum” which some have described as an environmentally friendly washing operation. The man dubbed “Sun King” by the financial press spent 41 years at BP, the last 12 years as CEO until 2007. His contract for the deal cemented the oil giant’s standing in the global game – including its controversial expansion into Russia – while securing Millions in salaries and bonuses every year. He’s busy these days with his latest venture, BeyondNetZero green investor.
family “Developing a new partnership successfully.”
education King’s School, Eli; MSc in Physics from St John’s College, Cambridge; and an MBA from Stanford University, California.
Pay “At present, I am completely self-sufficient.”
last vacation Venice, “my favorite place on earth” (where he has a second home).
Best advice given to him “My father once told me to get a suitable job. As a result, I entered BP as an apprentice, and the rest is history.”
Biggest Job Mistake “Don’t come out as gay earlier.”
Overused word “I love the word ‘after’. My first book was Beyond Business, and the climate growth project I co-founded and now heads is called BeyondNetZero.”
how to relax “Ballet, theater, opera, art. And interesting people, and interesting places.”
WMeets in Brown’s Chelsea home just as Sunak makes his small budget. His personal library is filled from floor to ceiling with volumes from each era of the art. At the top of the spiral staircase hangs a collection of Braun’s portraits of famous German photographer Wolfgang Tillmanns. There’s a spotted brown, reflected in the mirror and a brown standing beside a cutting board, in front of it a half-cut crusty loaf (“I can’t even cook,” he laughs). He’s a simple character, wearing a pink shirt and blue jacket, with tortoiseshell glasses.
Taking center stage is a framed photo of Brown’s late mother clutching a bright red handbag. It played a big role in his career: Brown claimed that it was to protect his mother, an Auschwitz survivor, that he hid his homosexuality for decades.
He’s come out of ‘Deep in the Closet’ before mail on sunday, who posted “Kiss and Tell” from his Brazilian sweetheart, Jeff Chevalier, a former escort. The episode led to his resignation from BP. Does he have any regrets? “Tons. I wish I had gone out earlier. Advice from my mother [was] Don’t make yourself a minority… Never tell anyone a secret because they will use it against you. These are important things a Holocaust survivor says to his son. He was afraid of being “outcast”.
Brown was found to have lied about the way he met Chevalier, telling his attorney that they met for a run in Battersea Park rather than online. “It was a silly lie. This is a poor error of judgment.” What will he say to Chevalier now? “I wish him a good day. I hold no grudge.”
However, Brown says his shameful departure from BP opened up new opportunities for him. “No one was going to offer me a job at a public company, and I didn’t want to ask…there was definitely a silver lining in that cloud.”
Fifteen years of presidency and government work and board positions followed. His cultural roles took place at Tate Theatre, a non-profit theater at the Donmar Warehouse and now at the Courtauld Institute of Art. The pride of his personal collection is the Titian of the 16th century. He’s become an author, and delves into a few thousand words in his latest work, inspired by a podcast series tied to the Cop26 climate conference.
His business positions included the board of directors of Chinese tech company Huawei, which he left when Britain followed America in thwarting its operations (“technically what they were doing was great”). Then there was the Quadrilla crushing plant. The government has opened the door to technology since the energy crisis, but Brown says, “We could have generated the gas supply, which would have helped a lot, but maybe it’s too late.”
His main position now is President of BeyondNetZero. He set up the company — led by Lance Uggla, who founded research firm IHS Markit — last year to invest in companies that help manage and measure emissions, decarbonize assets, improve energy efficiency and accelerate the circular economy. Her interests so far range from a solar energy specialist working in sub-Saharan Africa to a vertical farm project planned for America.
But does that make him a renegade for the oil industry? He laughs when he remembers the nickname “tree hugger” for championing renewables.
Shell faced demonstrations at last week’s shareholder meeting, with protesters claiming it was not investing quickly enough in renewable energy projects. How can oil and gas chiefs effectively balance old and new technologies? “People have been looking at every moment for a green wash: If you say ‘We are spending a billion dollars,’ they will say ‘Spend two billion dollars.’ Balancing is an ongoing debate.”
After a political uproar, BP pledged to divest the Russian assets it had amassed during Brown’s tenure. Should he have taken BP to Russia? In 2003 Putin paid a state visit to the United Kingdom. We had a banquet with the Queen and Prince Philip. He was seen as a reformer who would open Russia up and be good for security.” Over the course of a decade, Brown met frequently with Putin and resisted his demands to give the Russians majority ownership in BP, then jointly with TNK. “He was like a pane of glass, hard to beat. read it. With almost no expression of admiration or hate, which you can expect from a trained spy.”
Most recently, Brown worked with LetterOne, which is controlled by oligarch Mikhail Friedman, who is now under sanctions. Perhaps the West should have seen Russia’s deadly advance coming? “It’s obvious looking back, but it’s like taking to the street and asking people, ‘Why didn’t you get your money back from ISA three months ago?'” It certainly was clear.”
Brown is still attached to BP, and eats infrequently with Looney (they take turns pushing). He’s careful not to become Sir Alex Ferguson’s character arrogant, lurking at work. He says Looney “did a very good job of depicting his strategy and he’s introducing it bit by bit.” Looney was one of the last “turtles” of Brownie – ardent assistants who were assigned to higher positions.
Tony Hayward, a fellow Turtles and Brown’s immediate successor, was in charge during the deadly Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Brown was at a hotel in Dallas, Texas, that day: “It was a tragedy. I was watching TV…that was It represents an existential threat to BP.” Five years earlier, Brown had witnessed the exhumation of the bodies after the Texas City refinery explosion. He has faced accusations that he sponsored a culture that led to the Deepwater Horizon. “Everyone at BP is saying it’s not true. It was just pure speculation.”
Brown continues his mission in renewable energy. He concludes: “We are on the brink of an industrial revolution if you believe, as I do, that everything we do should be geared towards reducing emissions to get to net zero. The cause is not the result on the planet, but the people. If we let the temperatures explode. We may see too much migration and death due to floods and heat stress on agricultural crops. It is about saving no less than a basic livelihood for all of humanity.”
There is no quiet sunset for the Sun King’s stormy walk.