Mapping BP (1): taking on the challenge

When Chris lent across the table and said “We need to map one of the Supermajors. My candidate is BP”, I was struck by a number of thoughts at once. First, perhaps aided by a couple of beers, was: how cool is that? Second was, how could a small team of people in one room in Berlin possibly do that? Third was, what if they come after us?

The idea that huge corporations secretly control the world is part of our Zeitgeist. Campaigners like the Occupy movement articulate it forcefully but it is far more widely present in the Culture. Just look at the number of Hollywood films that have mapped onto this meme in recent years: the Firm, Antitrust, Erin Brockovich. It’s now such a commonplace it is appearing in kids’ films – the arch villain of Lego Movie is Lord Business. These days it is only the political fringes, the committed Left or insurrectionary Right, who see it as an addressable problem and declare an intention to do anything about it. But the belief itself is quite mainstream. For most of us just muddling along I suspect it often seems like a fact of life, inert most of the time but always there. Climate change is inevitable. The Middle East will always be at war. England will never win the World Cup again. Big business rules the world.

What we wanted to do was to take the idea out of its normal barroom habitat and test it under laboratory conditions, or at least the secrecy part of the formulation. The core assertion that “big corporations rule the world” has a hard time escaping debates of definition: what does “rule” mean? Which sources yielding any data are reliable? But, we thought, the idea that Big Business operates “invisibly” should be a testable proposition. After all, companies are required to file annual accounts and returns and other disclosures in almost all countries around the world. What happens if you are deliberately “naive” enough to try and put all that together?

To cut to the chase: in three weeks, using BP’s own public filings, we managed to put together a power map” of BP which includes 1,180 company structures in 84 jurisdictions in chains of ownership up to 12 layers deep – you can play with and download the dataset at bp.openoil.net. This essay describes that process, what the data set says and doesn’t say, and what we think it means for the potential to create a new way of tracking business in its dealings around the world.
Background

It’s worth stating at the outset there was no pressing reason to choose BP. We wanted to attempt a mapping on a full-on global concern and there is no question that BP is that. It employs about 100,000 people and its turnover, about $350 billion in 2013, ranks it as a bigger economic concern than the GDP of Colombia or the Philippines. Although it began life very much as a British company, and in fact the British government once owned a majority stake in it, BP has expanded out across the globe and with its acquisition of Amoco in 1999 has an extensive presence in the United States.

Of course, it still has high global recognition because of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, but the company’s history goes back over a century. Born as “Anglo-Persian” in 1909, it was one of the famous “Seven Sisters”, the original oil companies who operated as a cartel for decades and carved up the fields of the Middle East. BP was part of the consortium which ran the Iraq Petroleum Company, for example, which in the mid-20th century decided how much oil Iraq was going to produce, keeping production deliberately low for years at a time to prop up global prices.

More recently it had had been led by John Browne who at one stage was so adept at re-inventing both the company and himself that he had been up there with Richard Branson as a rock star CEO. At the end of the 90s, BP was “Beyond Petroleum”, aggressively exploring renewables while thinking about getting out of the dirty – and thin-margined – business of oil refining, out front in the financialisation of the oil markets, developing a trading arm which rivaled any major in the world, in the vanguard on transparency, suggesting it publish its contracts with Angola.

As a Brit, I have to say BP has also long held a particular interest. It is the national oil company we never had. When the North Sea was developed in the 60s and 70s, Norway built its own oil company, Statoil, to run its sector. It may have been suitably understated and self-effacing, as we have come to know and love from Scandiwegians, but Statoil was a very real assertion of what is now called “economic nationalism”. But cross over the line into the UK sector and you find the entire roster of global Big Oil. There was a brief moment in 1975 when the late Tony Benn, then Minister of Energy, created the British National Oil Corporation. But it never developed production capacity, was shunted aside under Margaret Thatcher – and later acquired by BP. Thirty years later, Norway has the Future Generations Fund currently running at $800 billion while we learned during the Deepwater crisis of 2010 that some 18 million British pensions were connected to BP stock, as though it were also the nearest thing we had to a sovereign wealth fund.

We have no particular animus towards or about BP as a company. If I am being totally honest I would have to admit that the knowledge that Deepwater Horizon still triggers enormous resentment certainly played in our selection as we thought it meant a guaranteed minimum of interest in the way this company, in particular, organises itself around the world. In the USA, even Republicans normally friendly to Big Oil love to hate BP as crass and, above all, foreign, as though it were a kind of corporate James Mason or Alan Rickman, the posh Brit baddie. And that story is far from over. There are ongoing lawsuits at state and federal level and BP’s share price is effectively hedged against liabilities which are still unknown.

But I have no reason to think BP is particularly or uniquely nefarious. Our work revolves around the “Resource Curse”, the fact that digging out large amounts of valuable stuff often ends up being bad news for societies in an amazing variety of ways. But it rarely seems useful, or right, to make it personal. A friend had worked directly for Browne and was full of respect for him, and I have come across several other BP “graduates” in our work in recent years.

I should also say that by definition we were not expecting to find any smoking guns. We were piecing together public filings, not rifling around in dustbins or sticking shredded documents back together. Whatever arrangements were made we had more respect for the small army of accountants and lawyers who were paid small fortunes to make them, than to expect anything obviously illegal.

At one level what you might expect to get out of such a mapping is fairly straightforward: a big network graph of companies criss-crossing the world. In the last couple of years, we have all become used to these kinds of visualisations, whether they are of the Iranian blogosphere, the famous Kevin Bacon paradigm in Hollywood movies (who’s acted in which films with who), or state corporations in China.

But the question is what actual use would a mapped network be, beyond the ooh-ah of seeing a huge mesh of dots and lines connecting them, or “nodes” and “edges” as our network analyst friends taught us to say.

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