John Browne is used to being an oil industry contrarian. It’s 25 years since the former BP chief executive made the landmark speech to his alma mater at Stanford University in which he became the first leader from Big Oil to link hydrocarbon emissions and climate change. He was denounced by many in his trade. “I was told I had left the oil industry church; I hadn’t realised there was one,” he says drily.
Now Lord Browne of Madingley is at odds with his former peers again, agreeing with Rishi Sunak’s windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas operators to help fund a £15bn cost-of-living package for households. Current BP chief Bernard Looney’s handling of the public debate has been so clumsy that the tax is being called the “Looney levy”.
“It’s right and proper: those windfalls belong to the nation, not to companies,” says Browne. “I’ve had windfall taxes exercised on me by many jurisdictions in many places.”
However, the crossbench peer warns: “Profits should be taxed, but costs need to be thought through very carefully because you should get the ability to write off your capital as you go forward, as well as your operating costs. And designing a system which allows you to do all that properly – it has always been complex. When you add a windfall profits tax on top, we just need to be careful how you do it.”
He remembers a windfall tax in the early 1980s which led to companies paying more than 100% tax. “The government took forever to get it organised and didn’t trust anybody to tell them what the price of oil was, so fixed the tax higher than it was. So there are issues like that: the costs need to be thought through. But I think it’s right to be helping people with their bills.”
His conveniently timed conversion to the cause of climate change has been met with some scepticism. It included a failed rebranding of BP as “Beyond Petroleum” that some labelled as greenwashing. The man the financial press dubbed the “Sun King” racked up 41 years at BP, the latter 12 as chief executive until 2007. His buccaneering dealmaking cemented the oil giant’s place in the global game – including its controversial expansion in Russia – while he received millions in pay and bonuses each year. These days he’s busy with his latest venture, the green investor BeyondNetZero.
Family “Successfully developing a new partnership.”
Education The King’s School, Ely; MA in physics from St John’s College, Cambridge; and an MS in business from Stanford University, California.
Pay “Nowadays, I’m quite self-sufficient.”
Last holiday Venice, “my favourite place on earth” (where he has a second home).
Best advice he has been given “My father once told me to ‘get a proper job’. As a result, I entered BP as a trainee, and the rest is history.”
Biggest career mistake “Not coming out as gay earlier.”
Word he overuses “I love the word ‘beyond’. My first book was called Beyond Business, and the climate growth venture I co-founded and now chair is called BeyondNetZero.”
How he relaxes “The ballet, the theatre, opera and art. And exciting people, and interesting places.”
We meet at Browne’s townhouse in Chelsea just as Sunak is delivering his mini-budget. His personal library is filled floor-to-ceiling with tomes on every era of art. At the top of the spiral staircase hangs a collection of portraits of Browne by the acclaimed German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. There’s Browne dappled, reflected in a mirror and Browne standing by a chopping board, a half-cut crusty loaf in front of him (“I can’t even cook,” he laughs). He’s a slight figure, in a pink shirt and blue blazer, with tortoiseshell glasses.
In pride of place is a framed picture of Browne’s late mother, clutching a bright red handbag. She played an outsize role in his corporate career: Browne claimed it was to protect his mother, an Auschwitz survivor, that he hid his homosexuality for decades.
He was outed from “deep deep in the closet” by the Mail on Sunday, which published a kiss-and-tell from his Brazilian lover, Jeff Chevalier, a former escort. The episode led to his resignation from BP. Does he have any regrets? “Tons. I wish I could have come out earlier. The advice from my mother [was] don’t make yourself a minority … never tell anyone a secret because they’ll use it against you. These are important things that a Holocaust survivor tells their son,” he says. He feared he would be a “pariah”.
Browne was found to have lied about how he met Chevalier, telling his lawyers they had met jogging in Battersea Park rather than online. “It was a silly fib. Such a bad error of judgment.” What would he say to Chevalier now? “I’d wish him good day. I don’t bear grudges.”
Still, Browne says his ignominious departure from BP opened up new opportunities for him. “No one would have offered me a job in a public company, and I didn’t want to ask … there certainly was the silver lining in that cloud.”
Fifteen years of chairmanships, government work and board positions followed. His cultural roles have taken in the Tate, non-profit theatre the Donmar Warehouse and now the Courtauld Institute of Art. The pride of his personal collection is a 16th-century Titian. He’s become an author, and is a few thousand words deep into his latest work, inspired by a podcast series linked to the Cop26 climate conference.
His business positions have included the board of the Chinese tech firm Huawei, which he left when Britain followed America in stymieing its operations (“technically what they were doing was fantastic”). Then there was the fracker Cuadrilla. The government has opened the door a crack since the energy crisis to the technology, but Browne says: “We could have generated gas supplies, which would have helped a lot, but maybe it’s just too late.”
His principal position now is chairman of BeyondNetZero. He set up the business – which is led by Lance Uggla, who founded the research firm IHS Markit – last year to invest in companies that help manage and measure emissions, decarbonise assets, improve energy efficiency and accelerate the circular economy. So far its interests range from a solar specialist operating in sub-Saharan Africa to a vertical farm project planned for America.
But does this make him an oil industry turncoat? He laughs on recalling being dubbed a “tree-hugger” for championing renewables.
Shell faced demonstrations at its shareholder meeting last week, with protesters claiming it is not investing fast enough in renewable projects. How can oil and gas chiefs effectively balance old and new technologies? “People would look for greenwashing at every moment: if you said ‘we’re spending a billion dollars’, they’d say ‘spend two billion’. Striking the balance is a continuous debate.”
After a political clamour, BP pledged to divest Russian assets it scooped up during Browne’s era. Should he have taken BP to Russia? “In 2003 Putin made a state visit to the UK. We had a banquet with the Queen and Prince Philip. He was regarded as a reformer who was going to open up Russia and be good for security.” Over a decade, Browne frequently met Putin and resisted his demands to give the Russians majority ownership of BP’s then joint venture with TNK. “He was like a plate-of-glass wall, very difficult to read. With virtually no expressions of like or dislike, which you could expect from a trained spy.”
More recently, Browne worked with LetterOne, controlled by the oligarch Mikhail Fridman, who is now subject to sanctions. Perhaps the west should have seen Russia’s deadly advance coming? “It looks obvious in retrospect but it’s like if you go on to the street and ask people, ‘why didn’t you cash out of your ISA three months ago? Surely it was obvious’.”
Browne remains plugged into BP, irregularly dining out with Looney (they take it in turns to pay). He’s keen not to become an overbearing Sir Alex Ferguson figure, lurking around the business. He says Looney has done a “very good job at portraying his strategy and he’s delivering it bit by bit”. Looney was one of Browne’s final “turtles” – eager acolytes earmarked for top jobs.
Tony Hayward, a fellow turtle and Browne’s immediate successor, was in charge during the fatal Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Browne was in a hotel in Dallas, Texas, that day: “It was a tragedy. I was watching the TV … that really was an existential threat to BP.” Five years earlier Browne had witnessed bodies being pulled out after the Texas City Refinery explosion. He has faced accusations that he fostered a culture which led to Deepwater Horizon. “Everyone in BP says that’s not true. That was nothing other than pure speculation.”
Browne is ploughing on in his renewables mission. He concludes: “We are on the edge of an industrial revolution if you believe, as I do, that everything we do has to be orientated around reducing emissions to get to net zero. The reason is not so much the result on the planet, but people. If we let temperatures rip we’ll probably experience a very large amount of migration and death because of flooding and heat stress to agricultural yield. This is about saving at least a basic subsistence of all humanity.”
There is no calm sunset to the Sun King’s stormy career.