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Up close and personal with BP's boss

Last night, I had a half hour tete-a-tete with the head of BP UK. He said some extraordinary things...

Our one-to-one came as a bit of a surprise. I'd gone along to their annual flagship graduate recruitment event, in Oxford's elite and somewhat snooty Randolph Hotel. Not because I want to work for them, I hasten to add. I went with a group of 20 local climate campaigners to make sure that their slick spiel spouting greenwash nonsense didn't go unchallenged, and to point out the utter insanity of their recent decision to get involved in the most destructive project in the world: Canada's Tar Sands.

We pretty much took over. To a slightly stunned audience of Oxford's finest young brains, we followed their presentation with one of our own, highlighting the fact that in recent months the oil giant has dropped the pretence of having moved 'Beyond Petroleum', slashing its renewables budget and closing down its alternative energy division. We pointed out that the company's decision to take a stake in Tar Sands oil extraction is outrageous on so many levels: fuelling climate change, trampling over indigenous rights, causing cancer and pollution, and holding up progress in the UN climate negotiations because as a result of these filthy fossil fuels Canada doesn't want to sign up to strong emissions reductions targets.

We suggested that a career in oil is a dead end (the industry with either be phased out, or they'll be playing a key role in triggering a global catastrophe) and encouraged graduates to look for green jobs instead. We unfurled banners, handed out briefings, and mingled afterwards, talking to attendees in more depth about the issues and, it seems, recruiting one or two to our Thames Valley Climate Action group!

A similar disruption had taken place last year, totally wrong-footing the poor guy who was running the event. So this year, in our honour, they brought in their biggest gun: Peter Mather, Head of BP UK. When doing his presentation he didn't announce who he was. I only discovered we were in the presence of a major corporate big-wig when, with another activist, I went up to him afterwards for a bit of a chat.

I've been involved in developing a UK campaign on Tar Sands for a while - in partnership with indigenous First Nation groups who are fighting the destruction of their homelands and devastating impact on their health over in Canada. We'd decided to target BP because although they've recently entered into their first Tar Sands extraction project, known (apparently without irony) as 'Sunrise', they're delaying the decision on the final go-ahead, so we still have a chance to stop the project in its tracks.

So the first thing I asked Peter was: 'when are you going to make a decision about Sunrise?' We've been expecting it in the next four months. 'Oooh, sometime in the next two years,' he said in an offhand manner, with no apparent wish to defend it. 'It depends on a lot of different factors.' Could this retreat from a few months to a couple of years be an indication that the pressure we're putting them under has already had an effect?

Then we got onto indigenous rights. I pointed out that there's huge opposition amongst local First Nation communities to Tar Sands extraction on their doorstep. I reminded him that the UN Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples stipulates that communities have the right to 'free, prior and informed consent' over any proposed development on their lands. I argued that it's not good enough for BP to just 'consult' with 'stakeholders' about a potential project: if the community says 'no', will BP respect that?

After some earnest claims about how BP always respects the wishes of local people: 'wherever we go, we are a guest in their communities' (I suspect the people of Colombia, West Papua and the North Slope of Alaska may disagree), I pushed him on the Tar Sands and he said - and I quote - 'Well, if local indigenous communities tell us they don't want Sunrise, then of course we won't do it.'

These are words that may well come back to haunt him, as the campaign to stop Sunrise gathers momentum.

He also expressed some jaw-dropping opinions. Regrettably, I didn't have a recorder on me at the time, so am quoting him from memory, but here are a few highlights that are still burned into my brain:

According to Peter, they have a great releationship with the locals in West Papua (where their deeply unpopular presence is helping to legitimise the occupation and oppression of the Indonesian government over the territory). BP did lots of consultation with communities before beginning to extract natural gas there, he boasted. The example he gave to illustrate how well this partnership was working?: 'We even moved some of their villages to make way for the project!' 'Er... did they mind you doing that?' I asked, incredulously. 'No! They were really happy! We gave them much better facilities in their new village - gas stoves and so on.' Riiiiiight... This couldn't be much further from the truth.

He waxed lyrical about how amazingly sensitive about locals' rights BP are these days. '20 or 30 years ago, I admit, the industry was doing some pretty bad things. But those days are gone. You can't just go round the world raping and pillaging any more.' You can't? Well, I guess that's progress, of a sort...

We talked a lot about economics, and what the drivers of change for BP might be. I challenged him on why the company is still doggedly following the fossil fuel path to oblivion. 98% of the BP's turnover comes from oil and gas. Why aren't they looking to the future and investing more in renewables? 'Because it doesn't make a profit - and we have to be responsible to our shareholders' was the predictable answer. So we got on to the role of governments in setting the conditions for a rapid transition, and he enthused for some time about China. 'I'm feeling optimistic about China. Obviously they're a big emitter now, but they are doing some positive things. And it has to be said, with their political system, you can really get things done!'

It's not often that you get to have such a wide-ranging conversation with one of the most powerful corporate leaders in the country. Much of what he said made me choke on my canapes, but the thing that struck me most was that he genuinely believes it all. He wasn't defensive or, I felt, spinning me a line. He was simply sharing his worldview - the worldview of someone who spends his time cloistered in his corporate headquarters or jetting off to visit flagship projects full of carefully-handpicked grateful locals. 

Most of the time, that worldview goes unchallenged. Perhaps that was the real power of our protest last night. Our presence at the event forced the Head of BP UK to stand up on stage in front of 100 people he really wanted to impress, and justify the unjustifiable - Tar Sands, the deaths of trade unionists in Colombia, the continued extraction of fossil fuels in the face of climate change. It can't have been a pleasant experience. But as our campaign gathers momentum, I suspect it will become an uncomfortably regular one.


Postscript: I had intended to write this blog in time for Blog Action Day yesterday, but sadly got too caught up in taking action so missed it! Sorry...

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