Holding Shell to account at the AGM

23 May 2012 james
First Nation representatives outside the Shell AGM in the Hague (Photo: Ben Powless)

Just returning from the Shell AGM in Den Haag, Holland feeling inspired and energised by the passion and courage of all those that worked to hold the board of the company to account – both in the Dutch meeting and in the parallel event (linked by video) in the Barbican in London.

Outside the conference in Den Haag – fittingly held in the Circus Theatre on Circus Straat with posters advertising ‘Wicked’ the musical adorning many walls – there was an array of actions to welcome the arriving shareholders and Shell employees. Milieudefensie (Dutch Friends of the Earth), as part of their ‘Worse than Bad’ campaign had organised a ‘Nigerian Cocktails Bar’ offering benzin infused drinks, and there were banners about Shell’s plans or activities in the Arctic, the Albertan tar sands and the Sacred Headwaters of British Colombia.

Five issues were highlighted by a number of activist and campaigners inside the AGM. Firstly, Shell’s projects in the Tar Sands. On the destruction of rights, human health and the environment, we heard from Ben Powless of the Indigenous Environmental Network and Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation – the latter are suing Shell for breach of commitments in these areas. Sue Dhaliwal of the UK Tar Sands Network questioned the board about Shell’s lobbying of the European Commission over the Fuel Quality Directive, whilst Ron Plain a member of the Aamjiwnaag First Nation revealed the legacy of toxic pollution at the company’s Sarnia refinery, where it is planned that bitumen from the tar sands will be processed.

On Shell’s plans in the Arctic, Robert Thompson, an Inupiat community member from Kaktovik in Alaska spoke with a calm beauty about the threat that drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea poses to a community which has existed on the shores of the Arctic ocean for thousands of years. He was followed by Faiza Oulahsen and Joris Thijssen of Greenpeace International highlighting the financial risks of Arctic drilling – building on the back of our joint report with FairPensions and Greenpeace Out in the Cold. I spoke for Platform, Charlie Kronick came in from Greenpeace UK via video link in London – as did the independent voice of Clive Wicks (formerly of WWF UK and ICUN). Whilst a representative of the Dutch ‘Investors Association for Sustainable Development’ raised the concerns of a number of their ‘stakeholders’ over the company’s Arctic drilling programme.

On the impacts of Shell’s projects in the Niger Delta, Paul de Clerk of Milieudefensie demanded that the board implement the recommendations of the UNEP’s report on pollution in Ogoniland, handing in a petition signed by seventy thousand people in the last few days. His concerns were reiterated by Paul Eagle of Amnesty International UK in London, and the head of Amnesty in the Netherlands who also highlighted the inaccuracies in Shell’s reporting of the 2008 Bodo oil spill in the Delta. Once again Clive Wicks pitched in from London with a bitter judgement on Shell’s practices in the Delta which he’s closely observed over the past two decades, and I highlighted the contrast between Shell’s rapid clean-up of the Gannet oil spill in the North Sea versus their prevarication in Nigeria – a clear example of double standards and, in the words of Ken Saro-Wiwa, environmental racism.

Rees in Den Haag and a colleague speaking from London, both from Forest Ethics, told the meeting of Shell’s plans to extract coal bed methane from the Sacred Headwaters area in western Canada and to build an LNG plant at Kitimat on the Pacific coast to export gas to China, Japan and South Korea. The Sacred Headwaters projects have been vigourously opposed by the Tahltan First Nation, and (despite the lack of clarity in the responses of Shell CEO, Peter Voser), Shell seems to be stalling.

Finally there was a silent protest against the company’s Corrib gas project in Eire as Gerry of Shell to Sea stood at by one of the two microphones in London and covered her face in a mask – composed of a skull and Shell’s logo.

In all, this barrage of questions and statements pounded away at the Shell board arrayed on the podium for the better part of three and a half hours. Towards the end the Chairman Jorma Ollila and CEO Peter Voser were, not surprisingly, looking tired and getting fractious.


It is easy to feel demoralised by attending AGM’s – it doesn’t seem that anything changes, the two or three members of the board who respond to questions just bat them off with answers that never seem to address the issues, there’s no opportunity to come back at any assertions that are inaccurate. Meanwhile, the body of the hall is filled with individual shareholders most of whom seem to pay little heed to the passionate statements of campaigners, community representatives, and activist who are bearing witness to the impacts of the company they draw dividends from. These events are piece of ritual theatre, which are mostly carefully orchestrated and contained by the company’s social engagement strategists. But they are litmus tests of the company’s reputation and the strength and courage of those in opposition to its activities.

I have been watching or attending Shell’s AGM’s since the late 1990’s and it seems to me that this year showed that a storm is brewing, and that the winds from at least four quarters are strengthening. Furthermore, the tide of opposition and scrutiny of the company is inexorably rising over the longer term. In one of my questions, I drew a parallel between Shell’s entry into the Niger Delta in 1950’s and it’s move into the Arctic on the late 2000’s – emphasising that for the last 60 years the peoples of the Delta have had to live with the disasterous consequences of that decision take by the CEO’s predecessor, and that now Peter Voser, Jorma Ollila and their fellow board members are in the early stages of an equally momentous decision. However, what I didn’t mention is that I strongly suspect that there were no questions raised in the AGM’s of Shell in the late Fifties over their Delta drilling programme, whereas today, in the early stages of the company ramping up their Arctic strategy, there’s huge international outcry, at the AGM itself and out in the wider world.

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