Has BP saved us from a refinery on the doorstep?


The Wye skyline in twenty years time? Not now…

Whether we ever get to know the true story of Wye Park remains in the lap of the Gods or with Richard Sykes’ conscience, both places that have yet to be proven to exist. But one thing is surely clear. The great project is in stasis, awaiting the executioner’s axe, right now because, in great part, one of its most important potential backers, the oil giant BP, is having very cold feet.

What’s amazing, if you spend a little time with people who watch the energy industry, is that Imperial College ever believed that a company of this nature would be party to a controversial plan to breach existing environmental and planning laws in the first place. Consider…

The first big surprise here is the name on Richard Sykes’ list of potential backers. There was a much more obvious one: Shell, another oil giant looking to find ways to survive and prosper beyond the petroleum era. After all, his predecessor as rector of Imperial College was the geologist Sir Ron (now Lord) Oxburgh who is now chairman of Shell and, as this interview with the Guardian shows, a man who is very vocal about his concerns for the planet.

Why didn’t Sir Richard pick up the phone and call the last man to sit in his leather seat? Believe it or not, the trouble may well lie, to some extent, in Wye. Sir Ron is the man who negotiated Imperial’s original takeover when discussions began in 1998, and oversaw the plan for Wye’s future in advanced research based on its agricultural background. He was personally involved in the very upbeat forecast for Wye under Imperial ownership, one couched in such personal terms it is difficult to read anything but optimism in the plan he outlined back then.

But Sir Ron gave way to Sir Richard. As we all know by now the original Oxburgh plan was left to rot, and Wye very rapidly fell into a downward cycle of decreasing students and income. What does Lord Oxburgh think of events at Wye since he departed? We asked him, and were surprised and pleased to get an answer, even if it was one, kindly sent on his travels in Singapore, that said there was a convention that retired rectors didn’t talk about their old colleges afterwards.

Still, for whatever reason Sykes did not go to the obvious connection but turned to BP instead, and tried to inveigle them into a plan to do… what exactly? We have never been told, but there are hints. Research into turning crops into fuel is pretty well advanced around the world. What hasn’t happened much is turning that research into product. Even Countess Sondes has said, in a message to this site, that her, presumably separate, non-foods centre supposedly planned for Wye would not be involved in research. So what would these places be doing then?

There aren’t many options. The likelihood is they would be manufacturing, possibly in small, experimental quantities, but making stuff, and wanting to distribute what it makes elsewhere. Or to put it another way: there is every reason to believe that what Imperial, Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council actually wanted to create on our doorstep, along with housing and commercial offices, was some kind of experimental mini-refinery to test the theory of non-food oil production in the real world.

You can understand why they have never actually spelled this out, though one suspects it is contained in those hidden Project Alchemy (definition: ‘the transformation of matter’) documents the college and our wonderful local authorities are doing everything in their power to ensure we never get to see.

The cynical out there might expect BP to leap at this idea. All oil companies are desperately searching around for petroleum alternatives. But the more cynical will know there is another agenda. Only a few years ago BP redesigned its logo to emphasise the green. Some critics who have been following the company for years say the changes are simply presentational, but BP likes to style itself as a friend of the environment these days. Just take a look at the extensive section on its web site devoted to the environment and society. Oil companies can’t behave as if they own the world any more. They have to make, and try to abide by, statements such as, ‘At the core of BP is an unshakeable commitment to integrity, honest dealing, treating everyone with respect and dignity, striving for mutual advantage and contributing to human progress.’

So imagine you are in the middle of a campaign to convince the world you are not the nasty old polluting oil giant of old. Then in walks Richard Sykes with a secret plan to build some mini-refinery on beautiful countryside that is among the most protected in Britain, a plan that would require a new road and motorway junction to service it, and absolute secrecy until the last possible moment because of the furore it will cause. Ten or fifteen years ago BP might have swallowed hard and said, ‘Fine.’

Today? As one industry analyst put it, ‘They’d run a million miles. The pain could never be worth the gain. You’d have everybody on your case, including the hardened environmentalist nuts.’

Also, just to be practical, there are plenty of other places you could put it, places that have existing planning permission and adequate road arrangements. Such as the London area, which is where BP appears to wish to site its planned centre.

None of this is particularly secret. Several oil people we spoke to said immediately that a company like BP would not, in the 21st century, have any truck with a plan that had huge and controversial environmental ramifications and was sited slap bang in south east England and involved the destruction of beautiful countryside. It would be corporate suicide. How could it stand up and claim to be squeaky clean in its expensive advertising with a nasty like that hanging on the doorstep of London, in full view of national and international media?

But Imperial appear to have missed this obvious point altogether. Perhaps Richard Sykes and his colleagues are living in a 1980s time warp in which large corporations and institutions can do pretty much what they please, where they please. If so, do you think they are starting to wake up to reality now?


About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome, Pieter Vos in Amsterdam, adaptions of the Sarah Lund stories in Copenhagen, and versions of Shakespeare worked for Audible.
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5 Responses to Has BP saved us from a refinery on the doorstep?

  1. Marlon Sorken says:

    Forget Shell and BP, have you thought of Yukos yet Mr Sykes? Just your sort it would seem. I am sure you can spin the idea that this russian giant is gravely concerned about the enviroment, given enough financial backing of course.

  2. Ben Moorhead says:

    David, This is spot on. I had only realised a few weeks ago that no sponsor worth their salt, least of all BP, would want to be bound in to one of the worst enviro-plans this country has seen this Century. They would run a mile. I’m not so sure about the russians but then ,of course, that would not suit Sir Richard’s profile as he craves his way to his enoblement.

  3. Joanna Williams says:

    My boss (who doesn’t think it’s a waste of a glorious summer weekend to read several Sunday papers) said she saw an article in one of the colour supplements about Wye, Countess Sondes, etc.

    From what I understand, the story was that the plan (sorry, idea) is still on; when it was put to the Countess that it would be a large, unwelcome blot on a beautiful and protected landscape, she said ‘oh, the locals have been consulted’ – !

    But I only got this second hand – perhaps someone could point me to the original article? The more this story unfolds, the more I think it’s one for Private Eye…

  4. David Hewson says:

    The joys of Google. The story in question was in The Standard which is doubtless why we numpties out in the sticks didn’t see it. It appeared in ES Magazine on July 7 with the headline: University challenge: Countess Sondes on building a new Oxbridge. Unfortunately the Standard clearly don’t think it important enough to run on their website so I have no idea what it said.

    Countess Sondes’ statements have been difficult to interpret to say the least, and our requests for clarification have not been answered. However she has previously emphasised several times that her non-food UN institute is not dependent on Imperial’s greater plan, though she might like it to be sited in Wye Park if it ever happened. If someone has a copy of ES from July 7 please feel free to send a scan using our new attachment friendly email sysem in the sidebar.

  5. Ben Moorhead says:

    I did see the article in the Evening Standard glamorising the Countess Sondes,her sprawled across a cushion-clad sofa wider than the Thames Gateway.For my part I would rather deal with issues and substance than would be centrefolds and titles.It is noticeable that the countess has not commissioned masterplanners to develop her visions on her own 4,500 acres.

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