Bob Dudley will retire next year after a 40-year career at BP, and on Friday the oil and gas supermajor named his successor as CEO. Bernard Looney, currently head of BP's upstream business, will take over the hot seat in early 2020.
What does Looney's appointment say about the company's direction of travel?
“Our company has amazing people, tremendous assets and a set of core values that guide our actions, but most of all we have a desire to be better," Looney, a native of the Republic of Ireland, said in a statement announcing the handover.
"I look forward to tapping into that desire and building on the strong foundation that Bob has built as we meet society’s demand for cleaner, better energy," he added.
In two speeches delivered last month, Looney went into more detail about how BP may do that.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Looney is a big believer in the future role of natural gas. More interesting is his acknowledgement that when it comes to power generation, being better than coal is no longer good enough.
One obvious way to deliver more energy with less carbon, Looney said, is "more renewables and gas, pushing coal out of power."
"But comparing gas to coal isn’t good enough on its own. We need to compare gas to zero carbon — how will we decarbonize it?”
Among other priorities, Looney went on to cite carbon capture, a long-term plan for hydrogen and a desire to end methane leaks from its own operations.
BP ranks as the fifth-largest source of historical carbon emissions when its products and operations are factored in, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project.
Playing catch-up on renewables
Back in 2011, BP closed its solar manufacturing business, known as BP Solar, when it couldn't make a profit. But since then it has made some progress in pushing back into the clean-energy business.
Two years ago it took a 43 percent stake in the British solar developer Lightsource. The company, now known as Lightsource BP, is chasing 10 gigawatts of solar capacity worldwide by 2023.
BP also bought EV infrastructure firm Chargemaster, today rebranded as BP Chargemaster, which runs the largest network of public chargepoints in the U.K.
The company remains a top-20 owner of wind capacity in the U.S., though its investments in recent years have been relatively small.
One major challenge for BP and other oil companies pushing into renewables and EVs is the much more rapid progress being made by companies in other parts of the energy system, notably utilities.
European utility groups Enel and EDF now claim to own 43 gigawatts and 28 gigawatts of renewables around the world, respectively. NextEra Energy, already the largest owner of wind and solar capacity in the U.S., now tops the list as the world's largest solar asset owner outside China, according to a new ranking from Wood Mackenzie.
Even German utility RWE, which spent the past 120 years burning coal, is performing a U-turn and targeting carbon neutrality by 2040. RWE has 9 gigawatts of renewable assets in place, 2.6 gigawatts under construction and an annual commitment to invest €1.5 billion ($1.67 billion) every year in wind, solar and storage.
“Lignite and nuclear energy have laid the foundations we are building the new RWE on," said CEO Rolf Martin Schmitz. "Past, current and future employees working in conventional areas have our utmost respect. But every form of energy has its time."
In a speech last month to the oil industry in Aberdeen, Scotland, Looney shared thoughts on the future for oil.
“As vehicle engines become more efficient, EVs become more prevalent and other new fuels are found, [oil] will be used less in transport," he said.
"But demand could still remain substantial — and play a greater role in other non-combusted uses, like petrochemicals," Looney said. "That's OK. Society can decide what it wants our products for. Our job is to produce them efficiently and sustainably.”
On climate change, Looney has taken a softer tone than many of his peers in the oil business. Both his speeches in September offered a relatively conciliatory and introspective tone.
“We need to listen, hard, to society’s concerns," he said. "They are real concerns — the world is not on a sustainable path — and they are our concerns. Shouting louder about the good that we do is not a winning strategy. We need to demonstrate that we are part of the solution.”
John Sauven, executive director at Greenpeace U.K., said Looney has an "opportunity to turn the page on years of denial, inaction and prevarication."
"BP should now pivot away from fossil fuels, shift to renewable energy and support a just transition for its workers," Sauven said.