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Browne speaks of Elton, elves and etiquette – but little of Texas City logo

Browne speaks of Elton, elves and etiquette – but little of Texas City

Former BP boss could not be drawn on explosion, newly released court papers show

Andrew Clark in New York

The Guardian, 

Thursday July 24, 2008

Former BP chief executive Lord Browne

Lord Browne while he was still chief executive of BP. Below, a Texas City refinery worker awaits news after the explosion that killed 15 colleagues and injured more than 180 others. Photograph: Bruno Vincent/EPA

The former BP chief executive Lord Browne admitted visiting Elton John’s apartment in Venice, explained that he rarely discusses business with his butler and said he was unaware that his nickname was “Elf”.

However, on the subject of the Texas City oil disaster, he was less forthcoming and disclosed precious little in a verbal skirmish with US lawyers.

A newly released transcript of an hour-long deposition in April this year by Browne to a US court reveals that the corporate chief denied all knowledge of safety lapses in the run-up to an explosion at Texas City three years ago which killed 15 people and injured more than 180.

“I wasn’t aware of that,” he repeatedly answered when asked about maintenance failures at the plant.

Insisting that he had only ever visited Texas City twice, Browne said it looked the same as any other refinery and that he did not perceive it to be dilapidated: “I didn’t see that it was unusually – I didn’t come away with an impression that is lasting with me that it was unusually different.”

When asked about an internal document suggesting that he was personally monitoring accident statistics at Texas City because he knew of its poor safety performance, Browne gave a qualified denial: “Well, certainly to the best of my recollection, this is an inaccurate statement. I don’t recall doing this.”

Browne did, however, accept that a survey of employees’ worries at the site was “disturbing” and he accepted responsibility for company-wide cutbacks which were blamed by certain victims for falling safety standards. “It was necessary to reduce costs to get [BP] competitive with others and to bring a degree of discipline into the management of the firm,” he told Brent Coon, a lawyer for bereaved families and injured workers.

BP fought for more than a year to avoid putting Browne on the stand, even recruiting rival Exxon Mobil to argue that a subpoena would be a bad precedent for the industry. But after his resignation, the 60-year-old peer was ordered by a Texas judge to answer questions from London by video link in a session held behind closed doors in April.

High places

A transcript was made public yesterday after BP settled a final batch of four claims brought by Coon on behalf of contractors working near the plant who suffered hearing loss, post-traumatic stress and a variety of physical injuries. During a series of abrupt exchanges about his background, Browne gave his full name to US lawyers as “Edmund John Phillip Browne, the Lord Browne of Madingley”, adding: “I am also entitled to this – the address the ‘right honourable’ and the suffix ‘knight’.”

Coon, a flamboyant Texan attorney, dwelt for some time on Browne’s connections in high places, establishing that the former BP boss had met president George Bush once, had discussed the oil industry with vice-president Cheney on a number of occasions and had a “business-like relationship” with Tony Blair.

Probing Browne’s social life, Coon asked him to confirm that he was friends with John, Gwyneth Paltrow and Hugh Grant. Browne replied: “I don’t regard those as friends. I have been acquainted with them. I have met them.” When pressed, he admitted that he had been a guest of Elton John: “I have been inside his apartment in Venice once.”

Browne, who now works for a private equity firm, Riverstone Holdings, confirmed that he employed a butler and a chauffeur, though he said he never discussed BP with them. When asked about nicknames, Browne said he was aware he had been dubbed the “Sun King”.

“There was a photograph of me appearing in front of the BP logo, which, when half obscured with a body, looks like a sun with rays,” explained the diminutive businessman before balking at Coon’s suggestion that he is also known disparagingly as “Elf”.

“I don’t believe I have ever heard that [sic] referred to me.”

The Texas City blast was America’s worst industrial accident for a generation. It happened when workers overfilled a tank with chemicals, sending a geyser of 7,600 gallons of flaming liquid shooting into the sky. Three of the employees involved had worked for more than a month without a day off and many of the victims were in trailers placed too close to volatile equipment. BP was fined a record $21m by the US regulators, although Browne said he had never read a report into the tragedy’s causes by the Chemical Safety Board.

“The CSB report was described to me in a meeting,” he told lawyers. “It was very, very long, I believe.”

Neither was Browne particularly familiar with the findings of the former US secretary of state James Baker, who delivered a scathing indictment of BP’s safety culture: “I read the Baker report. I can’t recall its content now … I was aware at one stage what was in that.”

Browne recalled that when he went to the site of the accident, he was “very, very moved by everything” on a “very human basis”.


It was put to Browne that BP’s refining chief, John Manzoni, complained at the time that flying to the scene was inconvenient because it disrupted his family holiday – a matter which Browne said he had never raised with Manzoni.

“I didn’t actually talk to him about it,” said Browne. “If it is actually true, it would – it was very disappointing – it would be very disappointing.”

At the end of the deposition, lawyers gave him an envelope from Eva Rowe, who lost both of her parents at Texas City. According to legal sources, it contained photographs taken in a mortuary of their severely burned bodies. When asked whether he knew Rowe’s name, Browne replied: “I have read it in the newspaper.”

During his 12 years as BP’s chief executive, Lord Browne re-branded the oil company as an environmentally conscious organisation with a distinctive sunflower logo. Presiding over a sustained period of expansion, he became one of Britain’s most influential business chiefs. But BP’s reputation took a battering in 2005 and 2006 from serious failings in the US including the explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 (above), a leak that shut down part of BP’s pipeline in Alaska and a propane markets trading scandal. Browne rode out these setbacks. However, he resigned in May last year after it emerged that he had liedunder oath in a court case to hide the fact that he met his former boyfriend through an escort agency called Suited and Booted.

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