The BP AGM, shareholder rebellion and (almost) being ejected

At yesterday’s BP AGM in London, almost 60% of shareholders voted against the company’s pay package for Chief Executive, Bob Dudley. For a company making cutbacks and losses, a 20% pay increase was always going to be hard to justify. But I very nearly missed the big announcement.

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Opposition to BP’s plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight was hard to ignore.

After being politely searched and handing over my AGM registration card on the way in, a member of security approached…

“You’re being ejected from today’s meeting as you’ve protested at other events.”

I was taken aback – I had never protested at a BP AGM. (Today, I was even wearing a suit and had just had a haircut!) I explained that I had come to ask a question, not to cause disruption and that I should be allowed to put it to the board. I made clear that I wanted to ask about the consultation of Indigenous peoples. What followed was an awkward three minutes while the other security staff decided my fate.

“We’ve decided to allow you into today’s meeting.”

Someone, somewhere, had recognised that allowing legitimate questions to be put to the board was something that needs to be respected. In previous years, campaigners had been refused entry to the AGM with little justification. This shift, that they will accommodate those with legitimate questions, was important and needs to be upheld next year too.

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Sea Shepherd brought a full-size inflatable sperm whale to the BP AGM. It didn’t get in…

Once inside, I was watched throughout. Another member of security sternly told me to turn my phone off and put it away – electronic devices were banned. I was sat next to a member of BP staff who had also been using her phone. Like a disgruntled teacher, the member of security turned to her: “I know you work for them, but you should be setting an example!”

After she had left, my new friend and “mischief-maker” from BP looked at me and said: “It is very annoying – and I work for them!”

A company so much in the public eye (and currently making headlines) should be seen to be transparent and accountable. Shareholders and journalists – and your own staff – should be allowed to tweet and text. What do they have to hide?

When the time came, I stood at the podium beneath the BP logo and addressed the stage with the board lined up behind BP-branded desks:

“Last year, BP was the sponsor of the British Museum’s Indigenous Australia – Enduring Civilisation exhibition, at a time when the company was pursuing permission to drill four new wells in the Great Australian Bight.

Given that Traditional Owners have voiced their opposition to these plans, was this sponsorship actually a strategic move to gain social legitimacy rather than fully address the concerns that have been raised?

Now that the company has ended both its 26-year sponsorship deal with the Tate and its 34-year sponsorship deal with the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) due to the ‘challenging business environment’, will it also be withdrawing from its other sponsorship deals?”

Bob Dudley, in his introduction, had said that BP “supports the best of British arts and culture with no strings attached” and here the Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, kept to the same line – “we’re proud of the way we pay back to UK society”. They claimed that they have “no plans to do anything differently” when it comes to the other sponsorship deals – an inconsistent position if pulling out of Tate and EIF were genuinely cost-cutting measures. In a change from previous years, when they had talked about sponsorship as a commercial decision like any other, the CEO made clear that “we do not sponsor exhibitions in order to curry favour”.

I pointed out that they had failed to address the first part of my question, that if they were willing to sponsor an exhibition of Indigenous peoples’ objects, surely they would also respect their objections and seek “free prior and informed consent” in other areas? (This is the language of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

There was an awkward silence. What followed was Bob Dudley asserting, again, “we would never seek the influence the content of exhibitions”. I made it clear that, those “other areas” were extractive projects like in the Great Australian Bight. Svanberg responded, saying that, “Our procedure is to talk and consult with Indigenous peoples” and ensure that we are “in alignment”.

Our recent ‘unofficial exhibition’ at the British Museum – A History of BP in 10 Objects – highlighted the situation in the Great Australian Bight alongside many other regions and communities impacted by BP. It included a photo of the Mirning Traditional Owner, Bunna Lawrie, alongside the terms of reference for the recent Australian Senate Inquiry into BP’s drilling plans where Bunna had recently spoken.

In a film about the Great Australian Bight Alliance, he has said, “We don’t want no oil to come and interfere, to come and destroy the place, to mess it up. We need to keep [the Bight] intact, to keep it as beautiful as it has been, so that whales and marine life continue to – like us humans – birth their young, breed their young, rear them, teach them, grow them up.”

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Lyndon Schneiders from the Wilderness Society being interviewed outside the AGM

Later in the AGM, a flurry of questions about the Great Australian Bight came from shareholders, including members of Share Action and the Wilderness Society Australia’s National Director of Campaigns, Lyndon Schneiders.

Earlier in the week, Lyndon had joined members of BP or not BP? and the activist projectionist, Feral X, for a creative intervention at the BP-sponsored British Museum. While the museum was hosting a lecture on its next BP-sponsored exhibition – the aptly named “Sunken Cities” – we projected images of the Bight onto the building’s iconic facade, along with the message “BP Oil Drilling = Sunken Cities”. The questions in the AGM about the proposed Bight project covered many angles: ethical, financial and political. In his response, Bob Dudley observed:

“This investment in Australia’s not popular today…”

They were starting to get the message. After the announcement of the shareholder rebellion over Dudley’s pay package, I headed out of the vast ExCel conference centre. Outside, members of Sea Shepherd had been chanting throughout the meeting: “Shame, shame, shame on BP!” At one end, among the banners about the Bight, was an Aboriginal flag.

Dr Chris Garrard is a member of BP or not BP?


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