But, over time, what once appeared as legitimate efforts by these companies has morphed into greenwashing. Whether that was the intent from the start or whether they were pulled back to current behaviour by the need to compete with less enlightened oil companies is really irrelevant. Shell's image went down in flames with the hanging of Nigerian anti-oil development activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and others in 1995, an event that brought to light the role of Shell and other oil companies in the support of Nigeria's repressive government.
In comparison to Shell, BP has done a better job of retaining the public sheen of environmental respectability. But, much like what happened to Shell with the Saro-Wiwa incident or, more recently, to Toyota's image as a manufacturer of safe and reliable cars, the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has become an image tipping point -- the incident that unleashes a flood of stories that undermine the narrative the company has spent so much time and energy cultivating.
Here are two specific examples. ProPublica has unearthed a letter from two Congressmen to BP,
In that letter, dated Jan. 14, 2010, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., noted that the company's efforts to cut costs could imperil safety at BP facilities.
Between September 2008 and November 2009, three BP gas and oil pipelines on Alaska's North Slope ruptured or clogged, leading to a risk of explosions, the letter said. A potentially cataclysmic explosion was also avoided at a BP gas compressor plant, where a key piece of equipment designed to prevent the buildup of gas failed to operate, and the backup equipment intended to warn workers was not properly installed.
The letter was addressed to BP's president of Alaskan operations, John Mingé. The congressmen have been investigating BP's safety and operations since 2006, when a 4,800-barrel oil spill temporarily shut down the Prudhoe Bay drilling field pipeline.
In a similar vein, the Seattle Times today reported
BP, the most important oil company in Alaska and the corporation at the heart of the Gulf of Mexico oil-drilling disaster, has struggled with perhaps the oil industry's worst environmental and safety record of the last decade.
The British oil company BP produced the largest oil spill ever on Alaska's North Slope, faced criminal charges for intentionally dumping hazardous waste near Prudhoe Bay and was excoriated by Congress for a string of oil-pipeline leaks on the tundra.
Members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — have accused the company of everything from profiteering at the expense of employee safety to pressuring government contractors to whitewash draft reports that criticized its upkeep of worn-out Alaskan oil pipelines.