An independent report on BP's safety record in the US has condemned Lord Browne of Madingley, the oil giant's chief executive, for a failure of leadership that contributed to the Texas City refinery explosion in which 15 employees died.
A panel headed by the former US secretary of state, James Baker, said that if Lord Browne had shown the same leadership on operational safety as he had on the environment then a litany of failings at its refineries business may have been avoided.
Lord Browne insisted his decision to retire early in July, which was announced last week after the board had seen the Baker report, had nothing to do with the criticisms - but he accepted a "moral responsibility" for the failings and promised to learn from them.
"As I told no one at the time, in early November I decided in my own mind to retire as chief executive sooner rather than later," Lord Browne said. "Uncertainty is not good, not good, for a company or its employees."
In a passage that will be seen as highly damaging commentary on an otherwise lauded business reputation, Mr Baker wrote that, as a "very visible chief executive officer, generally noted for his leadership in various areas, including reducing carbon dioxide emissions and developing the use of alternative fuels", Lord Browne could have taken important steps to reduce the risks at Texas City and elsewhere.
"In hindsight, the Panel believes that if Browne had demonstrated comparable leadership on and commitment to process safety, that leadership and commitment would likely have resulted in a higher level of process safety performance in BP's US refineries."
And the report went on: "The lack of effective leadership was systemic ... Until BP's management, from the group chief executive down through the refinery superintendents, consistently articulates a clear message on process safety, it will be difficult to persuade the refining workforce that BP is truly committed on a long-term basis to process safety excellence."
Deflecting questions on how the criticisms may affect his legacy after more than a decade at the helm of BP, Lord Browne said that would be for others to decide, but added: "I would say that, when I took over from David Simon in 1995, BP was a very different company. It has grown significantly, and it has become global rather than multi-regional. All of this needs to be reflected on by others, not me."
The Baker report was commissioned at the behest of the US government's Chemical Safety Board, whose work in the immediate aftermath of the explosion in March 2005 found "a corporate safety culture that may have tolerated serious and longstanding deviations from good safety practice". That was a finding that was more than echoed by Mr Baker yesterday.
The report steers away from apportioning blame to individuals for the Texas City accident, but its general conclusions will provide fuel for lawyers acting for the 170 people injured in the blast, many of whom are still suing the company. BP has set aside $1.6bn (£820m) to compensate victims and their families and to pay legal bills.
The company highlighted the Baker report's findings that significant improvements have been made since the tragedy.
Baker: The verdict
"Browne is a very visible chief executive officer, noted for his leadership in various areas, including reducing carbon dioxide emissions and developing the use of alternative fuels.
The panel found only a limited number of internal or public statements on process safety. If Browne had demonstrated comparable leadership on... process safety, that leadership and commitment would likely have resulted in a higher level of process safety performance in BP's US refineries."
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