I’d wanted to to attend the BP AGM, but confined to my sick bed I had to make do with following it online. Watching the company webcast, reading the transcripts of the speeches and, most vitally, following the brilliant live-tweets of my colleagues Louise Rouse of ShareAction and Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace UK.
In part due to the work of Louise, much of the back and forth in the Q & A section of the formal event was focused on BP and Russia. How much are the company’s assets at risk in the crisis over the Ukraine? Does the position of Rosneft in Russia raise questions over BP’s Arctic plans? How much is this a threat to investors’ shareholdings? How much is the board engaged in lobbying in the US, UK and EU to prevent the imposition of sanctions that would make their 20% holding in Rosneft even more challenging than it is? CEO Bob Dudley tried to reassure the audience by saying: “We are in constant contact with political leaders around the world.”
And there was anger from the individual and institutional shareholders at the AGM about the level of renumeration for key executives. The Chair of the Renumeration Committee, Anthony Burgmans, tried to explain by saying that he had ‘sympathy for regular people who might see these very high pay figures and not understand why’. The term ‘regular people’ is an echo of the remarks by Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of BP, on TV in June 2010 when he referred to the citizens of the Gulf Coast as ‘the small people’ – while he explained how much the company cared about ‘the small people’. It illustrates just how great the distance is between those that run this company and those that are impacted by it. How segregated are these people of power – insulated socially, economically, culturally and physically from ‘the regular people’, ‘the small people’. The vote on the Renumeration Report was pretty damning with 16.6% of shareholders going against the board. However despite this upset, Bob Dudley, for example, will receive $8.7 million for his work in 2013. That is £5.2 millon or £100,000 per week.
Bob Dudley has been CEO since October 2010 and during those three and a half years the constant focus of his attention has been on dealing with the legacy of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which at the time that he became CEO had brought BP to the point of bankruptcy. Dudley’s push to make the alliance with Rosneft is directly a response to the Macondo tragedy.
Financially BP has not shaken off the shadow of Deepwater – it still lags behind its former peers Shell and ExxonMobil, despite the $38 billion asset sale that it has undergone since 2010. But it has devoted huge resources to its legal department headed by Rupert Bondy to battle against litigants in the US courts. And through its Government & International Affairs department in Washington DC, headed by Elizabeth Reicherts, it has lobbied hard on Capitol Hill. (For as Dudley reminded his audience at the AGM: ‘lobbying is an important part of educating our leaders about the facts’). And it has spent heavily on TV advertisements and other PR across the USA.
As a result it has managed to change the narrative on BP’s position in the Gulf of Mexico – to the point where the corporation is able to portray itself as merely the victim of rapacious US citizens pursuing false claims against the company. Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of BP, explained that: ‘We were taken advantage of’ in the Gulf crisis. From this we are to assume that he means that one of the world’s largest corporations was taken advantage of by ‘the small people’, and the lawyers that ‘the small people’ employed to defend them.
This allowed Bob Dudley to say in his AGM address:
Turning to the Gulf of Mexico, we are very aware of the fourth anniversary approaching later this month of the Deepwater Horizon incident. BP has looked to be fair and consistent throughout those four years. We have looked to do the right thing by those who were affected by the accident and spill.
But also to do the right thing by our investors when it became clear that the system for compensating claimants was subject to a considerable number of unfounded claims. We have consistently maintained – supported by the findings of the various inquiries – that the accident was the result of multiple causes involving multiple parties. We have a dedicated team within BP looking after the legal proceedings.
Bob Dudley’s pronouncement largely received a positive response from the floor of the AGM. There was warm applause for the numerous questions criticising the litigation process around Deepwater. At the BP AGM in 2013, investors rose to bray at the USA – blind to irony that Bob Dudley is himself an American citizen born in Queens, New York. Rather than for his role as a CEO who’s handling of BP in Russia has been marked by repeated errors, it is for his role as an employee helping the company to clean up after ‘The Spill’, that Dudley still commands support among investors, both individual and institutional.
But as I filter the news coming from the AGM, I also read a blog from another American BP employee who helped clean up after ‘The Spill’. It’s written by Joey Yerkes and was passed to us by Karen Savage and our friends at Bridge the Gulf in Louisiana.
Joey Yerkes is a fisherman from Destin, Florida and worked to help clean the beaches of crude oil coming from the Macondo well as the company sprayed the slicks with the toxic dispersant Corexit. He writes:
Almost four years ago my dream was stolen. I was a cast net fisherman working in the Gulf, and those of you who are familiar with our story know the adversities we have faced with the health effects that are the result of working to clean up the chemical nightmare BP created along the Gulf coast.
Yes BP, you are responsible. Each year, on or around the anniversary of the disaster, I have written a story for all to see regarding the health effects I have faced since the spill. I know I am not alone. I have lost five friends now who have passed on because they were not able to seek proper treatment to extract the chemicals from their bodies before the exposure killed them.
I have shared the gory details of three and a half years of detox, IV drips, bleeding from every opening in my body, taking up to 40 pills a day, vertigo, headaches, ongoing skin lesions that never heal, neurological and cellular damage, waking up daily with my face in the toilet, lethargy, sleeplessness, crippling and constant joint and muscle pain, chemical pneumonia, and the mental anguish that has resulted from fighting sickness for almost four years now. I am in my second year of walking with a cane to maintain my balance. Have I mentioned the $80,000.00 I have spent on saving my life? I am now in debt to the tune of $85,000.00 more now and survive check to check just to maintain a place my daughter and myself can now call home. I still fight the same health issues on a daily basis.
On average in 2013, Bob Dudley earned $80,000 in less than three days work. The disparity of power and the disparity of the rewards of power is mezmerising. The distance between the people who hold power and ‘the regular people’, ‘the small people’ impacted by that power, is an outrage.