Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Shareholder Activism at BP AGM

Environmental campaigning can take you to interesting places, or it can take you to the grey, soulless barn that is Manchester Central. This is where I was last Monday, the occasion being the annual general meeting of the oil and gas multinational BP, formerly British Petroleum, briefly ‘Beyond Petroleum’, but mostly ‘beyond parody’: the people who had claimed to be saving the planet, but who actually destroyed the Gulf of Mexico.

Greenpeace has run a number of campaigns against BP in the past, and after one of them I found myself the holder of a single share in the company. This allows me to attend their AGM and, if I so desire, ask questions of the board. Greenpeace UK haven’t got in BP in their sights right now, so I was temporarily an activist for ShareAction, a group of people who do this sort of thing all the time.

Usually these gigs are in London, and even a free lunch doesn’t tempt me to go, but this year, for the first time in a century, they were in the north of England. Why was a good question. Possibly they were getting a few too many awkward questions down there. Scheduling the event for the day before Shell’s AGM in Holland was probably also a cunning ploy. The only way climate change activists could go to both would be to fly. Fortunately, they wouldn’t need to, as Manchester has activists of its own, and there was a decent group of us waiting to ask some questions of the board.

I’d been at the Conference Centre, a former mainline station in the middle of Manchester, earlier in the year for the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Green Summit. That had been a slickly organised affair too, but I didn’t remember seeing quite so many well-built, bald men with wires coming out of their ears when I attended that. 

Outside a group of scruffy people were holding up placards, whilst better dressed people shuffled past and made their way into the venue. I was dressed somewhere in between, having found a tie and a reasonably clean shirt at the back of the wardrobe, I followed them in. Beyond the first line of large men were airport-style security barriers. My credentials were accepted and I was allowed in, but my water bottle and re-usable coffee cup weren’t. This led to a dilemma as to whether I should accept the complimentary drink in a disposable cup.

Dilemma over, it was time for the main event. The AGM itself was part university lecture hall, part film studio. A bank of movie cameras occupied the middle of the auditorium, all pointed at the stage where the bank of rostrums looked like the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Two wary ‘redshirts’ flanking the stage were the most obvious security features, but closer examination revealed that most of the front two rows, except for a pair of little old ladies in the middle, were equally bald and equally well built. They were clearly not taking any chances.

But we weren’t here to cause trouble, at least not that kind. They had a special area to put people like us, with its own security, and a woman with a headset who took down the outline of the question we were going to ask and radioed it to her controller, wherever they were.

When all was ready the big screen, which had been showing film of BP’s latest engineering marvels, faded out and the board made their appearance. A phalanx of older white men, led by CEO Bob Dudley, took up their positions in the front row, with a couple of token women sat behind them.
The curtain opener was Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of the Board, who made his speech about how BP was back, $65 billion dollars the poorer thanks to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but now wiser and, yes, greener than ever before. I dare say, had the value of my shares been more than the cost of train ticket, I may even have been convinced.

He was just the warm up act though, the stars of the show were the activists, with our questions. A few genuine shareholders had sneaked in amongst us, who issued such gushing praise for the board my toes curled, but mostly it was a barrage of what politicians call tough questions: why were they fracking in Argentina, will they cooperate with the investigation into human rights abuses in Columbia, do they accept that Climate Change is a human rights issue, will they act on fugitive methane emissions, and so on.

Their response was slick, polished, professional and craven. They had an answer prepared for each question, but only one. If the same question was asked in two different ways, it was ignored the second time. Some questions weren’t answered at all, sometimes with no explanation. The pattern though was clear. The answers were not being given for the benefit of the activists, but of the shareholders. ‘No, there is no problem here’, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t recognise those figures’, ‘we have never been found liable’, but mostly ‘that is nothing to do with us’. BP just take the oil out of the ground, what happens to it next is everybody’s responsibility except theirs.

Asking a question at a big AGM like this is both easy and difficult. You have a podium, you have a microphone, and everyone is silent, waiting to hear what you have to say. But on the other hand, when you stand up there, this is clearly their territory. The board sit like gods on their thrones, guarded by their hired muscle. It’s hard to remember that they are the ones with the explaining to do.

All told I was glad I was up second to last. I was there to ask a question on the Amazon Reef, the unique and amazing coral system found in deep water at the mouth of that great river just two years earlier, a place where all the text books said you should never find a reef. Someone from the Climate Change 100+ group, another organisation that has shareholder activism as its main modus operandi, had mentioned the reef earlier, allowing Carl-Henric to give his prepared answer: no, the reef was not a new discovery, and anyway, the question of whether you should drill there was not for them, but the Brazilian government.

Knowing their answer in advance meant I could tailor my question to it. I said that until the 2016 paper on the reef was published nobody, apart from the researchers involved, had known the reef was there. I said that until a 2017 expedition went out (on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, but I didn’t mention that) there had been no pictures of the reef. And I said that the paper scientific paper produced by the expedition, published only last month, showed it was six times bigger than previously believed, and extended into one of the blocks BP jointly owns.

Would they answer? The board had done their usual trick of hearing several questions at once, so they could choose which to answer, so I couldn’t be sure. Svanberg had a quick word with Dudley. He answered another question, then he spoke about the reef. In Brazil, he said, ‘everyone knew it was there’. But this wasn’t anything the shareholder should worry about, because it was ‘35km away from where they were’.

The answer was infuriating, because it was so obviously wrong, contradicted by the paper I had in my briefcase. It seems we were dealing with Schrodinger’s Reef: something that everyone knows is there, even though it isn’t.

And that was that. The board’s obscene pay award was waived through without a single objection, and when the votes on the resolutions came through they had all been approved with majorities that would have embarrassed the vainest of tinpot dictators.

After the meeting there was the free lunch, but also a chance to meet the board informally. Svanberg sought me out and seemed very pleased with himself. The retired US Admiral they’d recruited to try to get the organisation a safety culture told me some stories of his time in nuclear submarines, and then I got a chance to collar Bob Dudley himself. Here I got a dose of what must pass for polite conversation in Davos and other such circles. No, he did not deny climate change, on that he was clear, but we mustn’t forget the ‘natural cycles’ that also play a part, and which presumably can be used to explain away any evidence that does fit his fossil fuelled view of the world. The Deepwater Horizon was, obviously, a source of regret, but is was the only accident they’d had.  

I tried to correct his oil-tinted view of the world, gave him a little lesson in climate science and reminded him of BP's other mishaps, Texas City, Grangemouth, several Alaskan oil pipeline spills, a near miss in Azerbaijan and a minor prang with a rig called the Thunder Horse, but he wasn’t bothered by what I thought. This man earns more in a month than I have done in my life. I don’t scare him.

But something did. The board had refused to answer several questions, including one from a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, claiming they were traps. Class Actions, Bob Dudley told his shareholders, were a ‘business plan’ for some US lawyers. What he didn’t say was that Friendsof the Earth threatened Shell with just such a suit just a few weeks ago. Clearly, they were worried. Indeed, when a gushing shareholder came up to Dudley, told him he was wonderful and asked for his autograph on his AGM papers, I couldn’t help saying “Are you sure that’s not his Class Action suit?”, and Dudley really did stop and check.

So, what did I think of my days of being a shareholder activist? "An instructive exercise in corporate evasion and lying" was what I told DeSmogBlog. It was something that needed to be done, but not something that is going to change the world. There are other ways of doing that.

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