Bernard Looney: The Kerry farmer’s son turned BP oil chief quietly backtracking on ‘green transition’ promises amid soaring profits
Bernard Looney runs an oil company that is one of the planet’s biggest carbon polluters. But when he took over as chief executive of BP three years ago, the farmer’s son from Kenmare promised a cleaner, greener future with the multinational announcing that it was moving rapidly towards renewable energy.
hortly after taking the job, the Kerryman talked about slashing BP’s carbon emissions as part of a “green transition”.
“The world’s carbon budget is finite, and it is running out fast,” he warned, sounding like Big Oil’s middle-aged answer to Greta Thunberg.
“We need a rapid transition to net zero. I get the huge frustration, the anxiety — the anger. I get that people want cleaner energy,” he said. “I hear that everywhere I go in the world.”
In 2020, Looney pledged to slash the company’s oil and gas production by 40pc and emissions by 35-40pc by 2030. Hard-nosed fossil fuel investors were horrified, and environmentalists could scarcely believe it. Was it greenwashing or a genuine commitment?
Looney does not fit the stereotype of the gung-ho, combative oil baron in the JR Ewing mould. The British press routinely describes the Instagram-friendly BP boss as “woke”, with his pronouncements about inclusion, diversity and empathy. He has described the oil industry as “socially challenged”.
In speeches and interviews, he can sound like a motivational speaker at a feel-good corporate teambuilding seminar. At other times, he is capable of frankness about the true aim of a multinational oil company: making enormous profits for shareholders.
He told the Financial Times in 2021: “When the market is strong, when oil prices are strong and when gas prices are strong, this is literally a cash machine.”
If ever there was a time when Big Oil is one giant cash machine, it is now.
Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago sent oil prices soaring, and Looney’s company made profits last year of $28bn. That was its biggest profit since 2008 and double what it made the previous year.
The most recent figures for Looney’s own earnings — including salary and bonus — show annual income of over €5m in 2021. His shareholding in BP was valued recently at €29m.
As shareholders celebrated the company’s blockbuster results and consumers struggled to pay soaring energy bills in recent weeks, he announced a slowdown in BP’s move to cut oil and gas production.
It was a dramatic reversal. Instead of cutting oil and gas production by 40pc by 2030, the target was changed to 25pc.
Pondering Looney’s change of heart as BP’s cash pile mounts up, one financial commentator was reminded of the prayer of St Augustine: “Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”
As a quintessentially modern chief executive with a casual style, Looney attracts admiration as well as scepticism. He was interviewed for the Norwegian In Good Company podcast last year and was introduced as an oil industry “rock star”. Alongside Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Stripe’s Collison brothers, he is one of Ireland’s best-known global business executives.
As the youngest son of five children, born to Mary and Tom Looney, he described himself as a “mistake” in his podcast interview.
“We grew up on a small farm and we sold milk to the creamery — we had our own milk, our own potatoes and meat.”
While his sister got a job in banking, his older brothers — a garda, an electrician and a telecoms engineer — revamped tractors and sold them on to make extra money.
Looney described himself as “the gofer, bringing them whichever tool they needed”.
He recalled: “I helped out on the farm, but not very well. My brothers were all good at fixing things, but I was useless with my hands.”
In interviews, he credits his mother for giving him direction: “She believed in education as a route to a better life. She had a hard life, there were no holidays, not much luxury and she worked as hard as my father physically.”
She advised him to read books, and told him: “If you can read, you can do anything.”
As a teenager, Looney was inclined to travel to the United States and get a job on a building site like many of his contemporaries, but his mother persuaded him to go to university. He studied electrical engineering at UCD.
After graduation, he borrowed his brother’s VW Passat and drove from Kerry to Aberdeen to start his first day at BP in 1991 as an engineer. He parked the car outside a hotel overnight.
The then prime minister John Major happened to be visiting the city and 20-year-old Looney woke up to find the vehicle surrounded by police. The Irish registration plate had caused a security alert.
Looney joined BP and has been there ever since, travelling the world to Vietnam, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and the North Sea, and steadily rising up the ranks.
According to the Financial Times, he became part of a band of bright young executives who were known as “turtles” after the cartoon heroes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They sprang into action whenever help was needed.
In 2010, disaster struck for BP with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A blow-out and fire killed 11 people and injured 17, harming or killing tens of thousands of birds and destroying marine life along the coastline of five states.
Looney was immediately flown out to the US to help the company stop millions of barrels of oil gushing out into the sea.
He spent two months working on the emergency response and has described it in the Sunday Independent as “without doubt, the most challenging time of my career”.
A clear sign that Looney could be bound for the top of the oil company came in 2016 when he was appointed chief executive of BP’s Upstream division. That put him in charge of the company’s oil and gas exploration and production.
The London-based executive was married to a well-known life coach, Jacqueline Hurst, but it ended in divorce after two years in 2019.
He is an out-and-out company man, telling the Sunday Independent: “This is a company that has given me everything I have in my life. I’ve been with them for 28 years, and it’s a company I love.”
Aidan Heavey, founder and former chief executive of Tullow Oil, has known Looney since before he was appointed BP chief executive. “He is well respected and an incredibly hard worker,” he says. “I don’t think you will find too many people who have a bad word to say about him.
“He has moved with the times. There is no doubt that we have climate change and we have to look at everything we are doing. At the same time, we are a long way from the stage when we can do without fossil fuels.
“He is a real Irish success story, and we should celebrate that. He has a hard job, because moving from fossil fuels to renewables is a hard thing to get right.”
When it was announced that he would be the overall chief executive of BP in 2020, Looney set out to be a listener, meeting shareholders, staff and environmental activists.
In speeches, he likes to quote some homespun wisdom that he picked up back in Kerry: “My mother told me that we were given two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in that proportion.”
While plenty of oil veterans were sceptical about Looney’s early commitment to move into renewables, he is also said to have keen supporters who have “drunk the Looney Kool-Aid”. His internal BP fans are known as the “Bernardettes”.
Unusually for a chief executive, Looney likes to talk at length about mental health and lists it as one of his interests on his LinkedIn account. “I have had my own struggles,” he says in the In Good Company podcast interview. “We have all had issues to deal with in our lives. It’s personal.”
Looney has admitted being a worrier who suffers bouts of nervousness. In the face of criticism, he tells people: “You don’t have to beat me up because I beat the s*** out of myself every day about how I can get better.”
When he announced his tilt towards renewable energy three years ago, he declared: “Today is about a vision, a direction of travel. The direction is set. We are heading to net zero. There is no turning back.”
As one financial pundit put it, he was hailed at the time as a charismatic moderniser for the millennial generation. As well as focusing his attention on wind energy, he signalled his intent to invest in solar power. Under his leadership, BP has built up a large network of electric vehicle charging points.
He repeatedly emphasised that he was taking that course because that was what society wanted. But Looney has also faced pressure from shareholders, who believe that the money to be made from renewable energy could never match the massive profit margins from oil and gas.
John Teeling, the veteran Irish businessman, tells the Independent it is great to have an Irishman at the top in BP and described Looney as “very personable”.
But he was sceptical about his strategy. He said investors do not like a focus on environmental and social governance issues to the detriment of profit.
Teeling said Looney was brave to move towards renewables, but he himself would not have made such a strong commitment.
Looney’s oil industry critics emphasise that rivals such as the US giant Exxon are doing substantially better than BP, because they maintain their focus on their core fossil fuel business.
Teeling says the BP share price has lagged behind that of its rivals for two or three years. Once Looney announced this month that he was slowing down cuts to oil and gas production, the share price rose on the London stock market by 12pc in two days.
BP still aims to reduce its total emissions to net zero by 2050. Justifying the change of the production target, Looney told oil industry analysts: “We need lower carbon energy, but we also need secure energy, and we need affordable energy. And that’s what governments and society around the world are asking for.”
As the boss of one of the world’s biggest energy companies, Looney is bound to attract criticism from all sides — with the old-fashioned petrolheads on one side dismissing environmental concerns and green campaigners on the other.
Consumers are also furious at the huge price rises for fuel while the oil industry prospers.
Environmentalists were annoyed at the change of direction, but hardly surprised. The reversal was sharply criticised by climate activists.
Oisín Coghlan, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Ireland, said the U-turn exposed the “absolute hypocrisy of the fossil fuel industry”.
“They were seen to commit to reduce emissions because of public pressure. Now that they are making huge profits, at the first possible moment they are ditching that commitment and doubling down on fossil fuels,” he said. “It’s simply immoral and a betrayal of humanity.”
It remains to be seen if BP sticks to Looney’s latest commitment to cut production by 25pc by 2030. While he is sceptical about the strategy, Teeling concedes: “I think ultimately he may be right in the long term, but will he be there to see the benefits of it?”
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