Cross-posted from Financial Times
By Sylvia Pfeifer and Kiran Stacey
Among the groups of environmentalists and campaigners that descended on the Excel centre in east London on Thursday to voice their opposition to BP, were protesters against its involvement in the Canadian oil sands industry and fishermen and women from the Gulf of Mexico, whose livelihoods were hit by last year’s oil spill.
But the actual numbers were smaller than expected and there were only a handful of campaigners outside, whose presence was overwhelmed by police who had expected greater numbers.
The most vocal protest outside was by a group of workers in dispute with BP over jobs at a bio-ethanol plant near Hull.
Malcolm Fee, one of the workers who claims to have been “locked out” of the site after his company’s contract to help build the plant was terminated, said he was “trying to get BP to sit down and sort this situation out”. He might find the board has other things on its mind.
Inside the meeting, the turnout was also rather less than expected. Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP’s Swedish chairman who presided over his first meeting this time last year – just six days before the tragic accident in the Gulf of Mexico – opened proceedings by reminding shareholders he had promised them that “chairing BP would be an inspiring challenge” and “I was not wrong”.
A rather flat-footed introduction, perhaps, but it got better, if not inspirational. Everyone at BP, said Mr Svanberg, had been “shocked and saddened” by the events in the US last year and while the company would not shy away from its obligations, it wasn’t just BP’s fault.
There were lessons to be drawn from the accident for the entire industry, Mr Svanberg insisted, and shareholders needed to remember that in “working with hydrocarbons there will always be risks”.
Tony Hayward, BP’s former chief executive who departed from the company last year in the wake of the accident and who was vilified by the US media at the height of the crisis, got a mention – and even a small round of applause from investors.
Mr Svanberg left it to Mr Dudley to express “regret” for the incident. He went on to reassure investors that BP has learned the lessons and taken steps systematically to implement recommendations the company’s head of safety, Mark Bly, published to improve its focus on risk and safety.
The question-and-answer session started slowly – the UK oil group was asked why it had not mentioned geothermal energy in its recap of its investments into renewable energy. Mr Dudley couldn’t agree more, he said, “we need to look at this,” and threw in for good measure that he was himself a chemical engineer.
But the heat was very slowly turned up. Julie Tanner of the Christian Brothers Investment Services told the board: “We need more information than is currently provided on the clean-up operation. Why is there no external independent expert to oversee implementation of the recommendations from the Gulf of Mexico reports?”
Clayton Thomas-Muller, representing first people in Canada affected by oil sands extraction told the board that its investment in the country, “the Husky-BP Sunrise project has taken away the peace of our bush life … The sheer volume of water used has dried up the plant life and reduced animal habitat”.
The security guards did their job, at one point carrying out a group of protesters against BP’s involvement in the Canadian oil sands.
The most poignant moment came when testimony was read out from Keith Jones, father of Gordon Jones one of the workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig who died in the explosion last year. Antonia Juhasz, representing some of those whose families whose livelihoods had been affected, read out: “BP, Transocean and Halliburton could have prevented the blow-out … Were you just too greedy? … You were rolling the dice with my son’s life and you lost.”
Mr Dudley astutely used the moment to read out the names of the eleven workers who had died in the accident but then robustly rejected some of Ms Juhasz’s comments about the affect of the spill on the life on the ocean floor.
Questions on Russia and Mr Svanberg’s and Mr Dudley’s own roles followed. What plans, asked one shareholder of Sir Bill Castell, the senior independent director, have you got to ensure proper leadership in this company?
“You, chairman were seen as a shrinking violet during the crisis, the current chief executive is tarnished by his involvement in the TNK-BP crisis and he was a refugee from Russia, while the previous chief executive was ousted”.
But his final criticism was deserved for the board as a whole: could BP in future avoid its AGM clashing with that of Rio Tinto?
“If a board cannot manage a diary, what can it be trusted with to manage?”
While Mr Dudley and Mr Svanberg, no doubt had expected much worse, they emerged bruised but not battered.
BP shareholders shaken by invasion of motley protesters
As BP shareholders shuffled quietly into London’s Excel conference centre on Thursday for their annual meeting, they were confronted by the sight of police leading away a woman covered in what looked like oil.
Diane Wilson was one of a large group of protesters with a variety of complaints about BP’s behaviour. As a shrimp farmer in the Gulf of Mexico, campaigning over the payouts made after last year’s oil spill, Ms Wilson said the sight of her blackened hands and face was “the only thing [the directors] understand”.
She and many others in the fishing communities whose lives were devastated by the spill were refused entry to the annual meeting, in spite of claiming to have secured proxy votes from other shareholders – something the company has not denied.
However, they were represented inside by Antonia Juhasz, author of Black Tide, a book on the effects of the spill, who read out testimony, excoriating the company, from the father of Gordon Jones, a 28-year-old worker who died in the Deepwater Horizon blast. “BP, Transocean and Halliburton could have prevented the blowout,” she read to a silent audience.
“Were you just too greedy? … You were rolling the dice with my son’s life and you lost.”
In response, an astute Bob Dudley, BP chief executive, picked the moment to read out the names of the 11 workers who died. But he then robustly rejected government estimates of the amount of oil spilled in the ocean, comparing the spill to “a fire hydrant on the bottom of the ocean”.
This was not the only campaign the directors had to face. Mr Dudley was temporarily stopped in his tracks by shouts from a group of protesters against Canadian oil sands, who were marched – and, in some cases, physically lifted – out of the conference hall.
The most organised protest came from a small, determined group of workers in an industrial dispute with BP over a bioethanol plant near Hull, northern England. Their banners, loudhailers and interruptions propelled their cause into the spotlight.