“You come from the premise that we are guilty already” – notes from the BP AGM 2016

20 Apr 2016 james
Bob Dudley, CEO of BP
Bob Dudley, CEO of BP

Bob Dudley, Chief Executive, who appears tired, pale and jowly, looks up from his notes and addresses a set of questions that have been put to the Board. This particular set from delegates at the Annual General Meeting of BP, are grouped together under the bracket of ‘concerned with climate change’. He peers out at the three-quarters empty hall in the Excel Centre, a sea of grey unholstered chairs and grey-headed pensioners. I’m all ears, scribbling in my notebook:

“and James … how are we to be held accountable? You seem to come from the premise that we are guilty already.”

His line trails off on to points about BP’s responsibility to provide heat, light and transport for the 2 billion people coming onto the planet, and about the company’s measured shift away from oil towards natural gas. About how BP can only move as fast as the wider policy environment and his earnest desire for the setting of a price on carbon.

The Board is questioned from the floor by a number of brave souls on a range of issues. One by one they stand before the microphone and speak at the fourteen directors on the distant podium. Louise Rouse and Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace UK on BP’s Canadian tar sands projects; Lyndon Schneiders of the Wilderness Society of Australia and Micheal Thornton of Carbon Analytics highlighted the threat to the seas of the Great Australian Bight by the company’s drilling plans; Jags Walia of APG Investments and Abigail Heron of Aviva Investors pressed the Board to keep to their climate commitments and Chris Garrard of BP or Not BP quizzed BP’s motivations in sponsoring the British Museum.

In his opening CEO’s speech Dudley had referred to the ‘historic Paris Agreement’ at COP 21 in December 2016, and the way that BP is addressing climate change. I picked up on this when I got my slot at the microphone :

“In the light of the Paris Agreement it’s widely recognised that two-thirds of fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground… there is a shift underway, illustrated by the world’s largest coal company, Peabody, filing for bankruptcy yesterday. Mr Dudley, you spoke of how BP had a long history of adapting to substantial changes, such as the nationalisation of oil in the 1970s by the Arab states. Why are you now not truly adapting to the changes demanded of you? Why do you, Bernard Looney (Chief Executive, Upstream), Lamar McKay (Deputy CEO), Brian Gilvary (Chief Financial Officer) and others continue to sanction projects that will bring yet more carbon into the atmosphere?

“In your address, you talked about safety. In BP it is emphasised that safety is a personal responsibility, that individuals are held accountable. After a disaster, such as Deepwater Horizon, great efforts are made to determine which particular individuals were to blame for the accident. Now you yourself and your immediate colleagues, Lamar McKay, Bernard Looney and Brian Gilvary are making decisions that undermine the safety of the Earth’s climate. My question is: what systems are in place to ensure that individuals, not just the collective of the company as a whole, but particular individuals are held personally responsible for the actions that they take in sanctioning new oil fields?”

I did not expect a full answer, but I was surprised by the directness of Dudley’s reply:

“You seem to come from the premise that we are guilty already.”

At one point in Dudley’s opening address, the massive video screen behind him showed an image quartered into new oil projects about which the company was particularly proud. There was an offshore platform with the title West Nile Field, Egypt. Here an arial shot of a construction strip running far to the horizon with a line of pipes not yet buried in the brown earth – the Southern Gas Corridor. And then a drill ship – Clair Ridge, UK North Sea, West of Shetland. The latter brought back a vivid memory from last summer.

The North Sea and West of Shetland oil & gas fields
The North Sea and West of Shetland oil & gas fields

I was at sea, on the MS Norrona, 24 hours out from Denmark and heading for the Faroe Islands and Iceland beyond. The sea area off the northern coast of Scotland that we were in has been a target area for oil drilling since the late 1970s. Oil was discovered here by BP in the Foinaven Field in 1990 and the Schiehallion Field in 1993. Foinaven started producing oil in 1997 and Schiehallion in 1998. These cold seas that for long had been held in human imagination as a place of birds, fish, mammals, ships and stories, were turned – in the minds of some – into a petroleum asset. They became the subject of presentations such as Dudley’s AGM address. But the exploitation of the rocks beneath this seabed was strongly contested, and I don’t doubt that Dudley is quietly aware of this as he refers to the project shown in the slide.

So deep are the waters West of Shetland, that in order to exploit the oil BP ordered two special floating production vessels, called FPSOs – the Schiehallion FPSO and the Petrojarl Foinaven. The latter was created by converting a former oil tanker at Ferrol in Galicia, Spain that, on 21st October 1996, was launched by Paula Browne the mother of the then CEO of BP. Greenpeace attempted to block the ship leaving the Spanish port and to harry her progress up the Channel.

Greenpeace activists on Rockall protesting Atlantic oil exploration
Greenpeace activists on Rockall protesting Atlantic oil exploration

In 1997, the following year, the oil companies were undertaking seismic work in exploration blocks West of Shetland and the Rockall sea area. That May, Greenpeace UK showed an advert in cinemas promoting their ‘Atlantic Frontier’ initiative to prevent drilling West of Shetland. Meanwhile Greenpeace International joined the campaign by linking climate change to oil exploration at the frontiers in Alaska, Australia and the Atlantic. On 10th June 1997 two Greenpeace activists, Pete Morris and Robbie Kelman, began a 42-day occupation of Rockall in a survival pod, declaring it the new global nation of Waveland. A month later Greenpeace boats were in action attempting to disrupt the seismic work of Atlantic Explorer. In August activists managed to fix the survival pod, recently removed from Rockall, to the anchor chain of the Stena Dee drilling rig being hired by BP for West of Shetland exploration. BP took out a £1.4 million damages claim against Greenpeace on account of its occupation of the rig. It looked like an attempt to bankrupt the organisation, before the corporation backed down following widespread public outcry.

Greenpeace activists blocking the Stena Dee drill ship
Greenpeace activists blocking the Stena Dee drill ship

All of these events were covered in Platform’s free newspaper Ignite II which was distributed to London commuters on 29th November, two days before COP 3 at Kyoto in Japan. It was this Conference of the Parties that adopted the Kyoto Protocol on the 11th December 1997. It seemed at the time like a major step forward.

As the MS Norrona carried me across the ocean, I reflected on how the battle to prevent further oil fields being opened up in this sea area is still to be won. The Faroese have explored their territorial waters (which adjoins the UK sector West of Shetland) but no oil has been extracted – largely because of the geological challenges and the high costs of production. However in April last year, BP, in partnership with Shell and OMV, announced that it would begin a seven year drilling campaign to open up new wells in the Schiehallion and connected Loyal field, with the aim of extracting oil here until 2035 and beyond. A new FPSO, the Glen Lyon, built in South Korea was towed across the India Ocean, bound for Norway and then West of Shetland. Meanwhile at the Clair field, also West of Shetland, work was well underway on BP’s project that aims to be producing oil up to 2050. It was progress on this that Dudley announced at this year’s AGM.

And this brings me back to the question of whether it is right to presume that Dudley and his colleagues are “guilty already”.

The impact of fossil fuels on climate change has been widely understood since 1980s. The first international gathering to set targets for CO2 emission reductions was the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere held in Toronto in 1988. The importance of the issue was given international prominence by the negotiation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit in May 1992. Three years later the first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Berlin.

So the discovery and exploitation of the West of Shetland fields has been taking place in the full knowledge of how the burning of oil, and therefore its extraction, would effect the climate. Indeed on the 19th May 1997 John Browne, CEO of BP, gave a ground-breaking speech at Stanford University in California in which he publicly ‘recognised’ climate change, and was lauded as the first senior executive in the oil industry to do so. Three days later Browne said, “If we are all to take responsibility for the future of our planet, then it falls to us to begin to take precautionary action now.”

There have been CO2 emissions from the burning of crude from the West of Shetland fields since 1997. And it is estimated that the carbon from them will remain in the atmosphere for a century, until 2097. (A study recently published by Columbia University Earth Institute explains that these emissions could remain for 1,000 years and their impacts felt for 10,000 years). So who takes responsibility for the CO2 emissions from Foinaven, Schehallion and Loyal? Who will take individual responsibility, not hiding behind the collective of the company, for the Clair Ridge project that Dudley announced with such pride at the BP AGM? Bob Dudley? Bernard Looney? Lemar McKay? Brian Gilvary?

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt

On the ship across the sea I was reading a section of the draft of the forthcoming ‘I You We Them’ by Dan Gretton, a co-founder and key part of Platform for three decades. The four books of this project all explore the question of perpetrator psychology and the critically important overlooked figure of the ‘desk killer’ in our society.[1] The chapter I was reading deftly unpicks Hannah Arendt’s essay ‘Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship’. Arendt was transfixed by the issue of ‘collective guilt’ and ‘collective innocence’ in relation to those who lived under Nazism. Dan writes: ‘She describes “the cog theory” as she terms it, this issue of how “huge bureaucratic machineries function … how the civilian and the military and the police forces are interconnected”, and the way that “each cog… each person must be expendable without changing the system.” This led to the repeated cry of defendants in the post-war trials – “If I had not done it, somebody else…would have” But this defence cannot work, because once the criminality of the machine is established the question follows: “And why… did you become a cog or continue to be a cog in such circumstances?”

Often it is said that individuals in corporate decision making don’t matter. That if Bob Dudley was not there to give the go-ahead for the extraction of oil from the Clair Ridge field, then someone else would be. That it’s not about Dudley, it’s about the whole of BP, or the whole of the oil industry, or all those who drive cars. This it seems to me is an echo of the defence of innocence using the cog theory, that “If I had not done it, somebody else…would have”. This surely applies to Clair Ridge? But perhaps the application of the theory depends upon the the line:

‘once the criminality of the machine is established’.

The destruction of the Earth’s atmosphere through the extraction of fossil fuels for profit is surely an act of criminality. As in all bureaucratic crimes, there is in the fossil fuel industry a diffusion of responsibility – the cog theory – but this does not lessen the responsibility. It seems to me inevitable that the criminality of knowingly extracting fossil fuels will in due course be formally established and the need for this to be established illustrates the importance of the work of a number of climate change cases being brought to court around the world. This need lies at the heart of the powerful #exxonknew campaign as well as in the work of Polly Higgins to realise an Ecocide Law.

Once the criminality is established, there will be a necessity to determine at what point ‘people knew they were involved in an ecological crime’, and either actively or passively ignored this reality. Perhaps that point will be in 1988 when the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere was held in Toronto? Or in 1990 when the ‘Global Warming Report’, edited by Jeremy Leggett, was published? Perhaps it will be in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit? Or in 1995 at the first COP in Berlin? Or in 1997 at the adoption of Kyoto Protocol? Or in 2015 at the Paris Agreement? If it is established at any of these points then Bob Dudley, Bernard Looney, Lemar McKay, Brian Gilvary and others could all be held to account for enabling the movement of carbon from beneath the seas West of Shetland into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Perhaps Dudley was right to suggest that I was presuming too far that he was guilty? If so, then my presumption was driven by the desire that the ‘criminality of the machine’ be established and quickly too. I desire this not out of some kind of vengeance, but because it seems to me that this will be a crucial part of addressing climate change by ‘keeping it in the ground’.

We move through key markers again and again. For 25 years we have passed milestone after milestone. Surely now, with the Paris Agreement signed by 197 nations and embodying the common sense understanding that fossil fuels must be kept in the ground, we have finally fixed that point where ‘the criminality of the machine is established’? This is the Red Line that has to be drawn through the bureaucratic machinery of the oil & gas industry. We need to ask those who work in the industry:

“How will you be held personally accountable for bringing new reserves of carbon into the atmosphere?”


“And why do you continue to be a cog in this machine?”


[1] The work will be published by Heinemann/ Random House in the UK and Farrar Straus & Giroux in the US in 2017.

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