We are in the dim light and red velvet of the Circustheatre in Den Haag for the Shell AGM. Up on the podium are the assembled bishops of the company. Eight in the back row all non-executives. Five in the front row: the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Executive, the Chairman and two non-excutives. Behind them a vast video screen forms the back wall of the stage, showing projections of the faces of the each of the men who speak – the three women on the board are never invited to utter a word. In due course it shows images of the backs of shareholders as they stand at the microphones and put questions to the Board.
If I could see through that screen and the outer wall of the theatre, out of this space, warm and soporific like the belly of the Leviathan, I would gaze out on to the sunlit Nord Zee. Out at the great expanse of grey sea and the sweep of Sheveningen Strand. For the theatre is a mere three hundred meters from the waves. There is is a Force 2 blowing from the South West, blowing up The Channel, shaking the Shell flags on the forecourt. My mind drifts to the Seventeenth Century prints of whales beached on the Dutch coast, of the vast crowds of citizens that gathered to look upon the corpses, reading into them omens of the fate of the Republic. Den Haag and its sister Rotterdam, for all their Modernity of brick and concrete, of highways and high-speed trains, was built on the wealth of the sea. On the harvest of the Herring, on the Salmon and Sturgeon netted in the Maas and Rijn, and on the blubber of whales from the North Sea and beyond. All of this fish flesh formed the foundations of these cities and the trading corporations that were born within them, including Royal Dutch Shell.
“We are not safe. Four hundred thousand people are not safe. Ten thousand homes will be damaged, and with them churches and schools. The ground accelerations, the earthquakes, that are taking place all over the area of Groningen, that are produced by the continued extraction of gas from the earth beneath our communities by the NAM gas company, of which you are the 50% owner, are destroying our homes. And there is the secondary threat of the quakes migrating to Delfzijl, where there are huge chemical storage tanks, and to Zeedijk by the Waddenzee.” Nicolette Marie is speaking with passion and dignity at the microphone. There is a stillness in the room. Perhaps two hundred people are here in the red velvet chairs, most of them Dutch, most of them grey haired and retired. For them, as for the Board, damage to houses and distress to citizens, is a matter of grave concern when the homes are in the towns and villages of the Province of Groningen in northern Holland. The Chairman, Jorma Ollila and the Chief Executive, Ben Van Beurden, go out of their way to allow the issue plenty of time to be aired by those who’ve travelled to the AGM from local groups, many assisted by Milieudefensie, Friends of the Earth Netherlands.
I’m inspired by Nicolette’s powerful demand. When it comes to my chance to speak I decide to echo her: “As part of Platform, I speak on behalf of colleagues in the Niger Delta. They would wish to be here themselves, but that is a huge challenge given the cost of travel and the difficulty of obtaining visas. I first attended a Shell AGM in1995, twenty years ago. At that time Ken Saro-Wiwa was in prison, he had not yet been silenced. What he was asking, loud and clear, was why did Shell apply different standards in the Netherlands to those that it applied in Nigeria?”
“Earlier I was extremely moved by the testimony of Nicolette from Groningen. I was struck by what you said in reply, Mr Van Beurden. Let me repeat what you said: “it is a fundamental right of people to live in the safety in their own home. Indeed that’s why we have homes, to be in a safe place”. You said in relation to the responsibilities of Shell in Groningen, “all damage will be repaired and we will do that driven not just by the legal requirement, but by the moral requirement”. You said that there was a “dedicated commitment of the Board to address this and that you’d do that in a way that is “very transparent and very open, so that everyone understands” Because the biggest insecurity is “not knowing what is coming next”.
“Our allies are deeply concerned about the apparent sale of Block OML 11, an oil drilling concession that covers much of Ogoniland. The communities in this area, need Shell to reassure them that you will not go through with this sale without first guaranteeing that the company will undertake the remedial work outlined in the United Nations Plan, even if this work has to take place after the the sale has been concluded. Will Shell make this commitment?”
“Nicolette asked you to commit to the repair of damaged properties in Groningen even if Shell sells out of its stake in NAM. Will you make the same commitment in Nigeria? Ken Saro-Wiwa was demanding just this, that Shell follows the same standards in Nigeria as it applies in the Netherlands”
This AGM of 2015 is a marathon. The proceedings begin on time at 10.00 am with the Chairman’s speech from the podium and it is nearly five hours later that the formal meeting closes and what remains of the attendees spill out into the theatre foyer to gorge on the sandwiches and cakes. The focus of overwhelming majority of the questions from shareholders concern Shell and climate change, and in particular how this relates of the company’s attempts to drill in the US Arctic.
The centrality of these themes is in part due to Special Resolution 21, which demands that Shell report annually on its CO2 emissions. Like the one at the BP AGM in April 2015 the resolution was filed by a body of concerned institutional shareholders. Speaking at the microphone and praising the company for agreeing to back the resolution, while also emphasising the need for Shell to address climate risk, are representatives of the key actors in the group: Matt Crossman of Rathbone Greenbank, Tendai Chigudu of the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church and Bill McGrew of CalPERS in the USA,
A pair of voices raise the question of the contradictions in Shell’s behaviour. Emma Howard Boyd of the Environment Agency Pension Fund and ShareAction asks why the Board had recommended that investors vote for this ‘climate change resolution’ on the very day that they’d also announced their intention to drill in the US Arctic. Hannah McKinnon of Oil Change International points out that the commercial exploitation of the oil beneath the seas offshore of Alaska is effectively based on an assumption that the world would pass way beyond 2 degrees of global warming, into the realms of catastrophic climate choas.
By the time these latter points are made we are well into the fourth hour of the meeting. The Chairman is tetchy and the CEO looks exhausted. Ollila is impatient with Hannah’s question: “I think we’ve dealt with that already”. But perhaps he knows that the company is already losing the battle in the media? That the story of the AGM has already been settled on the twitter feeds, the news wires and the radio broadcasts, even as the meeting itself rumbles on in this red velvet belly.
The PR department and investors relations team of Shell had wanted the event cast as a high point in the company’s campaign to present Ben van Beurden as ‘the CEO who cares about climate change’. But again and again in the meeting, and in the media, the contradiction between the Board’s support for the Special Resolution and drilling in the Arctic is drawn out.
There are several drivers of this success in creating the dominant story of the AGM, which is part of the ever more effective global campaign against Shell’s Alaskan plans. The weekend before the meeting there has been a dramatic protest against the company’s drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer. Hundreds of kayakers tried to blockade the monumental floating structure, the mountain of yellow and grey steel, as it was dragged by tugs to the dockside in Elliott Bay, in view of the skyscrapers of Downtown Seattle. Meanwhile the team at Greenpeace and Platform that has been engaging with investors on Shell’s Arctic projects since 2012, has prepared for this AGM in painstaking detail, particularly Louise Rouse and Charlie Kronick. And then, vitally, in the theatre is the presence of Mae Hank and Faith Gemmill of REDOIL. With the assistance of Suzanne Dhaliwal of UK Tar Sands Network, they’ve come from Alaska to speak directly to the Board of their fears of the impacts of Shell’s plans on the livelihoods of their communities.
Mae from Point Hope, on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, addresses the Board in her own Inupiat language. After a few words of greeting, she slips into English: “I came here two years ago to ask the question I ask again today. How will Shell compensate us for any spill that kills our food? How will they compensate 50 generations, to keep them going through the winter? You are coming into our ocean, which provides our food security annually. We rely on the ocean for our food. I am a grandmother with 17 grandkids. My grandchildren are so afraid right now that with a 75% chance of an oil spill, they will never be able to eat our traditional food again.”
Many in the community of Point Hope are hunters. They have the most intimate understanding of the Bowheads that pass through the seas of their Arctic home. Using knowledge acquired over generations, they kill a number of whales each year and augment their diet with the meat. Like the communities that net food in the creeks of the Niger Delta, Mae’s is a culture that is built on the feast of fish. Unlike the cities of the North Sea shore which have long since decimated the Herring, Sturgeon, Salmon and whales of their bioregions, the Bowheads remain at the centre of Inupiat culture because the are hunted with skill, care and long-term thinking. Any spill from Shell’s drilling programme and planned oil production, would threaten the Bowheads, and theaten the Inupiat culture of the Chukchi. Now the people of Point Hope live with what Van Beurden calls “the biggest insecurity of not knowing what is coming next”.
We leave the Circustheatre and step out into the streets of Den Haag. The breeze from the South West has stiffened. The sea reflected light is sharp and the mid afternoon is cold. Of late there has been much debate as to whether those concerned with the climate and human rights impacts of Shell should ‘engage’ with its financial digestive system of insitutional investors and AGM’s, or call for ‘divestment’, for the sale of oil shares by universities, charities and so on. In part the exilarating blossoming of the Divestment Movement is inspired by the argument that when legislation is created and enforced, Shell will be unable to extract oil from carbon reserves such as any Chuchki offshore fields. That these assets that the company purchased in order to extract profit will become ‘stranded.’
To me it seems that these two strategies are not inherently contradictory. To set rolling a snowball of divestment that leads to capital being moved out of a corporation such as Shell, is clearly an unavoidable part of the shift away from fossil fuels and the move to #Keep it in the Ground. But if we who are critical of Shell cease to ‘engage’ with it, and the institutional shareholders that own it, this will not mean the company will cease to ‘engage’ with, or rather impact upon, the communities who live on the land from which Shell is trying to extract oil & gas, trying to extract profit. Communities such as those in Groningen, Ogoniland and on the coast of the Chukchi Sea.
Stranding the beast of the company, like the Leviathan, requires a multiplicity of skills and techniques, care and long-term thinking.
With thanks to Louise Rouse, Charlie Kronick, Sebastian Bock, Suzanne Dhaliwal, Juliet Phillips, Hannah McKinnon, Mae Hank, Faith Gemmill