I sat nervously near the end of an aisle, somewhere in the middle of the hall. It was BP’s Annual General Meeting in London’s Excel Centre, on Thursday 12 April 2012. The room contained several hundred shareholders and I was waiting for my turn to address the Board of Directors. As the holder of a (single) BP share I had every right to be there, but to avoid undue attention I was wearing an uncharacteristically sharp suit and had grown a neat little beard for the occasion. It seemed to have worked so far – the security guards were all ignoring me.
My question for the board was going to be rather unusual, and I was waiting for some of my friends in the room to ask their questions first. One by one, they challenged BP on the fact that its business plan required the world to stay destructively hooked on fossil fuels for decades to come; on its decision to ditch its solar power division; on whether extracting the Canadian tar sands could be classified as ecocide and might one day land the Board in jail.
BP’s smarmy Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, (pictured below) ducked and slithered his way around the questions as best he could. Another shareholder asked whether BP was lobbying against new EU standards for cleaner fuels that could restrict the flow of tar sands into Europe. Her question was ignored.
My turn came at last, and I stepped up to the microphone. Despite my nervousness, I managed to make my voice sound calm as I addressed the board as follows:
‘Mr Chairman, we’ve already heard that, according to your Annual Report, you believe that fossil fuels will still make up 80 per cent of global energy use in 2030, leading to a 28 per cent rise in CO2 emissions. This will lock us into disastrous runaway climate change. So my question is: what’s the escape plan? I mean, the really scary stuff will start to kick in over the next twenty to thirty years, and a lot of people in this room will still be around then. So I can only assume that there’s some kind of interplanetary escape pod being built in a secret BP bunker, to carry the Board, executives and senior shareholders away as society collapses around us.’
Laughter began to ripple around the room as I continued: ‘I’d like to know how many spaces are available on the ship, and where the Board is planning to escape to – Mars? The moon? Somewhere deep below the earth’s surface, or another solar system altogether? Also, are tickets available to shareholders and how do we book our place on board?’
Svanberg refused to answer the question. This means that they definitely have an escape pod, and just don’t want to share it. On hearing this, I gave a cry of ‘BP are leaving us all to die! We’re all going to be killed by climate change!’ and tumbled to the floor, dead. This was the cue for eight more people around the room to collapse, groaning, into the aisles. There was a moment of confusion as security guards came running over, and then someone helpfully shouted out, ‘They’re not dead, they’re just demonstrating!’, prompting more laughter.
I decided to stay dead and let security carry me out of the hall, while others in the group were dragged, escorted, or explained that they’d be happy to move of their own free will as soon as BP pulled out of the tar sands.
I tried cheerfully explaining to shareholders as I passed that numerous studies have shown that it would be perfectly possible for everyone on the planet to have a good quality of life without the use of fossil fuels. I’m not sure if their grins were in response to this statement, the stunt we’d just pulled, or the fact that one of our group was still loudly refusing to move until he got his ticket for the space pod.
We’re so used to having to deal with corporations as though they’re huge, formless beasts. The Annual General Meeting is one of the rare opportunities we get to put some human faces on the corporate monster, and look them in the eyes. Before our sudden attack of climate death, representatives from Gulf Coast communities had stood up in the meeting and delivered powerful testimony to the Board, explaining that BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster had not been cleaned up: oil and dead wildlife were still washing up on the beaches, people’s health and livelihoods were still wrecked, and BP’s supposed compensation fund simply wasn’t reaching the people who need it most.
Their statements were followed by a challenge from Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who pointed out that a legal challenge over treaty rights by the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Canada was threatening to render all of BP’s tar sands leases illegal; did the company have a contingency plan for this? In response, the Board just reeled out some prepared statements that completely ignored the questions.
The combination of all of this led to blanket press coverage the next day, from The Guardian to The New York Times to The Financial Times and even The Sun. Add this to the hilarious anti-BP Olympics website hijack from the previous day, and the ‘Greenwash Gold’ event on 16 April where BP has been nominated for an award for worst Olympic sponsor, and it all equals a very bad media week for one of the planet’s biggest and most destructive corporations. Expect more of this sort of thing as the Olympics get closer...
The BP AGM action was coordinated by the UK Tar Sands Network. We’ll be doing it all again for the Shell AGM on 22 May, which is happening simultaneously in London and the Hague. Why not join us? Contact us for more information and to get involved.
Photos: top- Abode of Chaos under a CC Licence; middle- Carl-Henric Svanberg and Torben Grael under a CC Licence; bottom- by the UK Tar Sands Network.