BP occupies a Greenpeace platform

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It was a familiar enough sight. The suits were collecting in a luxury London hotel for an expensive business conference, despite protests from their opponents on environmental issues. The difference, at Mayfair's Marriott Hotel last Tuesday, was that the suits were on Greenpeace campaigners and the protests came from the PVC industry, prevented from roofing the Millennium Dome after the environmental group threatened to disrupt construction.

But inside the "Greenpeace Business" conference, all was sweetness and light. The group's leaders shared a platform with John Browne, chief executive of BP, which little more than a month ago was trying to bankrupt them for interfering with its operations in the North Atlantic.

Mr Browne spoke of his company's "close relationship with Greenpeace" and the pressure group called him the oil industry's "most progressive chief executive". Other old enemies, including British Nuclear Fuels and Shell, dutifully applauded. One frustrated questioner from the floor objected: "Outside you all behave like the Spice Girls, but in here you seem to be on the wrong sort of Prozac."

o GREENPEACE described the conference as "pursuing solutions through strategic business alliances" and spoke of "building on its relationships with the business community". At times, it was hard to tell who was who.

Take Mr Browne and Thilo Bode, the international head of the pressure group. The BP chief was the younger, fitter, and livelier - and would have looked at home in a wetsuit. Dr Bode, a decent, soft-spoken Bavarian, looking strangely like a heavier John Major, was the image of the business executive he used to be.

"If Greenpeace says 'no' to business, it does not mean that it is against industry in general, but that companies have to change their methods of production," he said.

It all seems to have been too much for the excitable John Gummer, who was due to chair the meeting but instead repaired to the Tory party conference - to hear Michael Portillo, even more surreally, condemn "the unqualified pursuit of the free market".

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you how much the pressure group charged the businessmen to attend: pounds 440.63 a head. Naturally, it gave its friends from charities and other pressure groups a reduced rate: pounds 293.75.

o THE conference, we were told, was run off solar power, and indeed a colourful lorry carrying photovoltaic cells was parked ostentatiously outside the hotel. In fact the lorry was only powering the microphones and projector. It wasn't even running them directly off the sun, but from batteries, which had been charged up previously and could just as well have been brought in a transit van. When I dropped in, it was churning out 460 watts, but receiving only 20 from the sun.

Nevertheless, it was a good day for solar power. The BP chief described how his company was investing in it, estimating that in 50 years it could supply half the world's energy. And, on the same day, Shell announced that it was investing $250m in renewable energy. Could the rivals be on the verge of a sun rush?

o AND IT was Mr Browne who had the best line of the day. His speech made him, he told Greenpeace, "in a reversal of our normal roles, the first BP executive to occupy one of your platforms".