Just returning from the Annual General Meeting of Shell at Den Haag in the Netherlands – tired but exhilarated by the experience. As with the AGM in 2012 there was a powerful array of civil society groups from all over the world taking the time and devoting the energy to travel to the grey, rain soaked Dutch city on the North Sea coast and engage in the strange theatre of the event.

The formal meeting itself ran for four hours. As ever, it is a strange ritual process in which all parties act their role – the Directors of the company seated like an array of bishops on their high podium looking out over the congregation. On the front of the podium is the title ‘Royal Dutch Shell plc’, high on the wall behind is the Shell logo, and above it a vast video screen that shows a close up of the face of whichever of the directors is speaking. Most of those seated in the only half-full auditorium were obedient adherents – generally pensioners and almost all Dutch. (It seems the British presence at these events is inexorably dropping away). The archbishop – Company chairman, Jorma Ollila invites comments on the Annual Report and Accounts and those who wish to make their criticisms dutifully queue up in front of the microphone stands. With patience and courage each of us who have made the journey to this auditorium raises issues concerning the impact of Shell’s business on the peoples and environments of the far corners of the earth, from Canada to the US, from Nigeria to the Ukraine, from Russia to the EU.

Ollila responds a little to each question and then passes it on to a trusted bishop – usually Peter Vosser (Chief Executive), but ocassionally Simon Henry (Chief Financial Officer), or Hans Wijers (chair of the Renumeration Committee). Charles ‘Chad’ Holliday is asked to comment a couple of times as Chair of the Corporate & Social Responsibility Committee. The remaining nine members of the board, from Sir Nigel Shinwald GCMG (former UK Ambassador to the USA and Blair’s Foreign Policy & Defence Adviser from 2003 to 2007, the ‘Iraq Years’) to Gerrit Zalm (former Minister of Finance of the Netherlands) sit there in stoney silence – staring straight out at the audience. They remind me not only of bishops, but also of figures on the podium of some congress of a Stalinist Communist Party. Impassive. Immovable keepers of the Orthodoxy. Patient guardians not only of the shareholders’ dividend, but also of a particular way of looking at the world.

Each of the questions and statements from the floor is carefully honed and considered. They are delivered not in the hope of getting some kind of meaningful answer from the podium, nor in the hope of achieving some miraculous change of direction by the company. No one expects Zalm or Wijers, Holliday or Shinwald, to have a ‘road to Damascus’ moment. Mostly the responses from Olilla, Voser or Henry are equally honed and considered. Answers that have been carefully prepared by the Public Relations team to ensure they deliver the appropriate amounts of dismissal or denial, emoliance or gratitude – ideally without creating any ‘hostages to fortune’ or letting slip some information that might be picked up by a journalist or asset manager.

Only occasionally does a statement disrupt the ritual exchange. Louise Rouse from Share Action questions the company’s oversight of contractors. Voser responds that they’ve been meeting the challenge of overseeing the nearly 1 million (direct and indirect) employees with ‘supplier principles’, ‘performance monitoring’ and ‘Enterprise Framework Agreements’. But Louise manages a quick comeback, pointing out that that these schemes, which Voser said were in place since 2009, failed to address the fundamental flaws in contractor oversight that was revealed by the fiasco of Shell’s attempts to drill in the Alaskan Chukchi Sea in 2012.

I draw attention to Shell’s new joint venture memorandum with Gazprom, which underpins plans to explore for oil in the Russian Arctic, highlighting the issues laid out in our new report – Russian Roulette.  Written and researched by Anna of Platform and co-created with Greenpeace UK and ShareAction. After Voser has explained that the board is taking a ‘prudent approach’ and will carefully review all the key matters before making a final investment decision, I raise the impudent question as to whether the shareholders would be allowed to see this assessment prior to that key decision. I get an intemperate response: ‘The shareholders elect the Board and entrust them to make these decisions on their behalf’. In other words, ‘no, the shareholders will not be asked their opinion as to whether Shell should drill for oil in the fragile Arctic for the next few decades’.

I find the most affecting of the statements from the floor coming from Mae Hank of Point Hope, representative of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL). With her solid frame wrapped in a light blue crocheted shawl she leans into the microphone, and after a few words in English, she begins to speak in her own Inupiat language. Seconds in she’s created a ripple across the room – there’s murmers from the rows of Dutch pensioners in the red velvet seats, and there are shrugs and smirks among the men on the podium – Hans Wijers begins to laugh and exchanges a comment with his neighbour, Michiel Brandjes – the Company Secretary.  It’s an uncomfortable moment – as though the far distant provinces of the company have suddenly been brought into this Western European theatre. Olllila’s voice booms out over the loudspeaker system: ‘What is your question?’  Mae continues calmly – ‘We all share the same food out of the ocean.’ ‘We are terrified that our food is threatened by the offshore drilling’ ‘You are coming into our garden – the ocean is like a garden to us’ ‘The ocean is covered with ice for 6 to 8 months a year and Shell does not have any proof that they can safely contain an oil spill during the Winter months midst the strong currents and powerful storms’ ‘How will Shell compensate us for any spill that kills our food? How will they compensate 20 generations, to keep them going through the Winter?’

Eriel Deranger and Mae Hank preparing for the AGM

After the formal meeting has finished, what remain of the attendees spill out into the foyer to devour the sandwiches and pastries. It’s a chance to try and engage a Director in a one-to-one conversation. Mae and I catch Simon Henry. She repeats her questions: ‘How will Shell compensate 20 generations?’.  Henry says ‘You explained that the ocean is your garden, and we can’t compensate you for the loss of your garden. But I repeat that Shell is taking a very prudent approach – there will not be any accidents.’ Mae is quietly insistent: ‘That is what you say – but we saw what happened when the Kulluk rig went aground in January and we are frightened – how will you compensate 20 generations?’. Gradually Henry becomes more testy: ‘That was nothing to do with the drilling, it was purely a maritime incident. As for compensation, we will abide by all the US federal and Alaskan state laws set down on these matters’

I ask Henry, ‘What is the furthest date that you plans run to, that your window of financial projections stretch to?’ He replies, ‘In the Oil Sands. To 2050’. I try to engage him on the contrast between his sense of time and Mae’s, that he’s thinking about fifty years, about one generation, and she about 20 generations. ‘This is a philosophical question. The world’s population is growing and energy demand will grow with it, we have to help meet that demand and that is why we need to explore for resources in the Arctic’. Mae gently points out that this is done not for world development but for the company’s profits. Henry looks puzzled: ‘But a profitable company is a good company – one that can invest in the future’

After the exchange has ended I’m struck by the sense of two fundamentally contrasting views of the world – both in terms of place and in terms of time. Henry is seven weeks off his 52nd birthday. He started employment in Shell at 21, as an engineer in Stanlow refinery in Cheshire. In the intervening years he’s worked in a wide range of places around the world, from Egypt to Vietnam. When he was only seventeen Mae started fighting against the despoilment of her home by the oil industry. For nearly four decades she’s remained in the same place and struggled to defend the land and ocean that has belonged to her community (and to which her community has belonged) for thousands of years.

Henry meets the question of compensation by saying Shell will abide by the laws (though of course Shell has far greater power in framing those US-wide laws than the community of Point Hope, so distant from Washington DC) and sees this eventuality as at worst stretching across a decade (as is the experience on BP on the Gulf Coast). But Mae, standing face to face with him sees it in different terms. She explains that a generation to her people is 50 years, thus twenty generations is 1,000 years. Mae recognises that her community will either be destroyed by the oil industry or live with the consequences of its impacts far into the future. Henry will have retired from Shell within a decade, at which point full-scale oil production in the Chuchki Sea may only have just begun. He will walk away. For him the issue of future generations is a ‘philosophical question’. For Mae it is a visceral matter of survival.

I’m reminded of a saying which Ben, an old colleague in Platform, told me came from Colombia – ‘With patience and saliva the ants devour the elephant’. With passion and courage we are overturning the understanding of the world that lies behind Simon Henry’s responses, the Orthodoxy that the Podium represents. I’m looking forward to next year’s AGM.

******

The civil society groups represented at the AGM consisted of Mae Hank, who had journeyed from Point Hope in the far north-west of Alaska, Eriel Deranger of the Athabascan Dene First Nation had come from Alberta, Pavlo from the Ukraine, Lise from New York, then from England there was Sue Dhaliwal from UK Tar Sands Network, Dominic Eagleton from Global Witness, Louise Rouse from Share Action, Howard from Amnesty International, and myself from Platform. All of us visitors were kindly aided and hosted by Dutch colleagues Marleen of Amnesty, Geert and Evert from Friends of the Earth and Faiza of Greenpeace.

You can read the FT’s account of the grilling that Shell received here.

You can read the UK Tar Sands Network account of the AGM here.

Below you can see a video of the Indigenous Communities who came to oppose Shell’s ‘extreme energy’ at the AGM.