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In deep water

‘We understand that a business is in business to make a profit, and we don’t have a problem with that – we run a business too,’ says Tracy Kuhns, who used to run a shrimping boat business in Louisiana. ‘But you should not be allowed to make a profit until all the costs of doing business are paid. Our coast and our livelihoods are ruined, we have not been compensated, and yet the BP board still pays themselves bonuses.’

A year on from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP’s Annual General Meeting struck a far different tone compared to the 2010 congregation, held just a week before the explosion in the gulf, which released over five million barrels of oil and destroyed the fisheries, coastal estuaries and fishing economies of the Gulf of Mexico.  

Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Photo by ideum under a CC licence

Last year’s AGM: quiet and uneventful, save for a formal resolution supported by Fair Pensions and campaigners from Canada regarding the risks of potential tar sands extractions, which seemed to go largely unnoticed by most of the shareholders.

This year: the board unsurprisingly found itself at the receiving end of impassioned criticism. ‘This AGM is the last chance to hold the company accountable,’ said Kuhns.

She and other representatives from gulf coast communities staged a protest at the entrance of the meeting – Diane Wilson, a shrimp farmer from Texas, was arrested by police after covering herself in black goo, ‘the only thing they understand,’ she told the television cameras. Though they were entitled to enter as proxy shareholders, BP security barred them from the conference on the grounds that they could cause a disturbance in the proceedings. 

Activists from Climate Rush, the UK Tar Sands Network and Rising Tide were dragged out of the building, after attempting to create a human banner spelling ‘No Tar Sands’:

Members of the Ethecon foundation entreated the board to let the barred Gulf representatives into the building, and attempted to present the board with the ‘Black Planet’ award – a planet-coloured beach ball covered in black ink.

Risky investment
Anti-tar sands campaigners from First Nations communities in Canada – Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Jasmine Thomas and Clayton Thomas-Muller – spoke to the board about the impacts of tar sands extraction projects in Alberta, and questioned the board’s decision to enter into the region, the world’s largest industrial project and a ‘risky investment’, as Thomas-Muller described it.

Many long-term shareholders of a more conventional stripe asked difficult questions regarding the spill, as well as the company’s future plans: ‘You assert to us that you can plan for climate change by asserting that you are good at drilling in deep waters,’ one white-haired shareholder asked. ‘I would caution you to watch that hubris does not overtake you,’ said another.

And, more to the sentiment shared by all shareholders who hold stake in the company, which lost £40 billion due to the spill, ‘Quite frankly, you have cost me money.’

With so many dissenting voices, the tone was markedly different from the previous year’s unexceptional meeting. Though some shareholders present denounced the ‘harassment’ and ‘intolerable treatment’ of former CEO Tony Hayward by ‘the Americans’ last year, the overall sentiment in the room appeared undoubtedly to be one of anger regarding the accident and a degree of sympathy for the Gulf residents, including those who had travelled from the US for the AGM and had been barred entry.

When chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg tried to interrupt Juhasz (who like many dissenters had bought a BP share for the opportunity to question the board at their meeting), the crowd came to her defence, including Keith Jones, father of Gordon Jones, one of the 11 men who died in the explosion:

‘You had to make more money faster, and if that put those who were on the rig at risk, well sometimes one has to take a few chances, right? Well none of you were on that rig, and none of you were rolling the dice with the lives of your sons or daughters – but you were rolling the dice with my son’s life, and you lost.’

Though the explosion is largely regarded by the public as an accident, and perhaps one that could have happened in any industry, Juhasz explained two days previous to a gathering of dissenting BP shareholders, activists and campaigners that the catastrophe was not ‘a fluke’.

‘This was an expected outcome of an industry that has extended beyond its technological capacity,’ said Antonia Juhasz, author of Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. ‘They were using shallow water technology, the same used back in 1989. And yet their documentation said they could handle a spill of 300,000 barrels per day – the Deepwater Horizon only leaked 80,000 barrels per day.’

Winners and losers
There are 148 other deep wells around the world, she said, and Juhasz is not alone in thinking the Deepwater Horizon spill could just be the first of many such environmental disasters as oil and gas exploration heads into more extreme environments, from the deep ocean to polar waters to oil shale and tar sands.

Questions regarding the tar sands in fact garnered a huge amount of attention – a stark change from the previous year, when few shareholders seemed to be aware of any controversy. The Financial Times blog even declared tar sands campaigners to be among the few ‘winners’ of the AGM, for ‘attracting maximum attention to their cause’.

But one is left wondering how many shareholders would give the green light to operations in Alberta, in particular because the board sold them the idea of a ‘lower impact’ form of tar sands extraction, steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Also known as ‘in situ mining’, this process injects steam into deep fissures underground, melting the oil and piping it to the surface. Svanberg proudly proclaimed that the process, which will be utilized at the Sunrise project (operated by BP with Husky Energy in Canada), due to its subterranean nature, leaves no tailings ponds and only affects ‘five per cent’ of the surface area.

But these figures are extremely misleading, says Greenpeace’s Laboucan-Massimo, who published a report last week showing that the energy and water needs of SAGD operations are in most cases just as bad as open pit tar sands mining operations – and in many cases worse.

But like the spill in the gulf of Mexico, these effects will not be readily seen by board members in London or energy consumers around the world – only those on the front lines will be able to see the true impacts, unaffected by the glossy PR campaigns. BP may claim that the cleanup operation in the Gulf is complete, but coastal communities and local scientists know that the oil is still there, just lingering on the bottom of the ocean. Oysters, shrimp and fish have not returned, dolphins continue to wash up dead on the shores, and the rivers continue to stink. ‘We still have oil coating the bottom of the ocean, we still have dispersant coating the bottom of the ocean, what we don’t have is the life that is supposed to be there,’ says Juhasz.

The impacts of SAGD too could be as intense and expansive – yet remain out of sight and out of mind for BP’s board, shareholders, and everyone worldwide who consumes their oil. Svanberg soothingly claimed that BP had become ‘a wiser company’, yet history may be committed to repeat itself.

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