John Browne: Engineering the Future



John Browne is a renowned figure in the energy industry and author of five books. He started working for British Petroleum as a college student in 1966 and served as CEO from 1995 to 2007, during which time he engineered a $48 billion merger with American oil giant Amoco that vaulted BP into third place globally. A few years later, BP signaled a transition away from fossil fuels with a major rebranding campaign, “Beyond Petroleum.” 

“It wasn't greenwashing -- it was actually a change in mindset,” says Browne, adding that “when you change mindset you change behavior and you also change the makeup of the people who are the team inside BP.”

Outside the company, the move to explore energy sources beyond oil and gas was not met without resistance. “The American Petroleum Institute... told me that I had left the church,” recalls Browne, “and that they were going to fight what BP was doing.”

While expanding rapidly, BP was also aggressively cutting costs in such a way that some industry insiders were not entirely surprised when disaster struck. Browne was no longer with the company at the time of the Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, but he was CEO when an explosion occurred at a BP refinery in Texas City in 2005, killing 15 workers, injuring 180 others.

“It was a human tragedy above everything else,” he says. “I was there when the last body was recovered. I did not flinch at saying we were fully accountable for it.”

Despite the setbacks at BP and the increased urgency of the climate crisis, Brown presents an optimistic yet clear eyed view of technology and innovation and how it can, if used properly, improve the human condition in a hot and crowded world.

“Humans are not bacteria,” he notes. “We are able to change course we really are able to change course. And with the right leadership we can get amazing things done not simply eat ourselves to death.”

Related Links:

Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilization

BP “Beyond Petroleum” ad (2005)

Speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (1997)

CSB report on the Texas City Refinery Explosion