BP is Britain's biggest company and, after Exxon, the world's second biggest oil multinational. It has also been voted the world's most respected company. BP is Colombia's biggest foreign investor, controlling half of its oil production. This operation is Britain's biggest investment in Latin America.
In April the Colombian Solidarity Campaign accompanied three Colombian lawyers to BP's annual shareholders’ meeting, where they spoke on behalf of 200 families who have been impoverished and forced off their land by the OCENSA pipeline that carries BP's oil to export markets (see Colombia Solidarity No 7). Yet BP still denies responsibility for compensating the peasants for their loss, has refused to meet the lawyers and is hiding behind interminable delays in what is laughably described as Colombia's justice system. Why is BP apparently so confident?
A recent Financial Times article provides part of the answer. 'Oiling the political engine', notes that "While the days of ownership have long past, BP's ties with the British government are still so close that rivals call it 'Blair Petroleum', even though this did not ward off this April's North Sea oil tax increase."
BP's chief executive Lord Browne is very close to the government, "One Whitehall insider says there is a 'meeting of minds' between Tony Blair and Browne, who is a regular visitor to Downing Street. Both men admire the other's leadership."
The famous revolving door of personnel between BP and government starts with its top executives "Anji Hunter, Blair's childhood friend and former special assistant, is Browne's director of communications. Nick Butler, strategic policy adviser, is a former Labour candidate and friend of Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff". It continues at the next level down: "Browne has encouraged BP managers to make use of secondment programmes to ministries, mostly the Department of Trade and Industry, but also the Foreign Office and Treasury. There are four BP employees at the DTI." And, according to the FT, "BP plays both sides of the political fence": the head of its UK government relations office is Richard Ritchie, a former Tory candidate and aide to the late Enoch Powell MP.
Just what game is in play, the use of imperial power to secure control of the world's oil supplies, is alluded to by Browne: '"When we started in Azerbaijan, we encouraged the UK government to set up a representative office in [the capital of] Baku. We gave them office space, which they paid for. The way governments see it", Browne says, is that "the flag goes and the trade follows". But sometimes as in Azerbaijan, it is a case of "the trade goes and the flag follows"'.
Indeed. On 11 June 1993, Azerbaijan’s then President Abulfaz Elchibey signed a declaration with BP and several other Western oil companies to develop the offshore Azeri, Chirag and Guneshli oilfields on conditions that were favourable to the Azerbaijani state. Just 12 days later, incoming President Heydar Aliyev cancelled the contract – his first action after taking power in a coup d’état on 18 June. According to the Sunday Times (26/3/00), a Turkish secret service report has alleged that BP was involved, "BP Accused of Backing ‘Arms for Oil’ coup’" *
Some good trade came BP's way after the spot of flag planting. The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline will pump oil 1,750 km from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Construction starts in December, with completion in 2005. The value of fuel passing through this and a related gas project is estimated at US $21 million a day.
There's more. A coalition of NGOs has just revealed that BP and the other oil companies owning the BTC pipeline have secured an agreement from the Turkish government exempting them from 'obligations under any current or future Turkish law that may threaten the project's profits, including environmental, social and human rights legislation'. The agreement prevents the Turkish government from taking any actions that could disrupt the project's "economic equilibrium". The BP-Turkey agreement creates a corridor 'that would effectively be outside the government's jurisdiction'. The NGOs describe this arrangement as colonialist and compare it with the discredited Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).
What we see here, as in Colombia, is BP at the forefront of the oil multinationals' imperial takeover. George Monbiot cites the example of the BTC project to show that corporate promises made at the Johannesburg earth summit are likely to prove hollow (Guardian 3/9/2002). Exactly so.
For all its fine policy claims, we have met no goodwill or cooperation from BP in trying to resolve the Colombian pipeline victims' claim. There is no alternative but to appeal to public opinion, in Britain and internationally. We will be launching a Petition and Appeal demanding that BP pay up to the Colombia pipeline victims.
We know that BP is not only well connected, but ruthless. We also know the truth of its operations in Colombia and will not give up until there is a just settlement. As George Monbiot concludes, "Big business will protect human rights and the environment only when it is forced to do so".
* It was a coup that gave birth to BP. The corporation was formerly known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and was renamed British Petroleum after it inspired the CIA coup against elected president Dr. Mossadeq in 1953, because he had dared to nationalise Iran's oil.