A few new colors were apparent this year at BP’s annual shareholder meeting in London. Along with BP’s new logo of glowing green were added the red, blue and yellow of the Tibetan flag.
Outside the annual meeting, Tibetan activists gathered around a giant flag of Tibet. Nestling beside the banner stood Cara, a 14-foot inflatable caribou, which stood as a reminder of the wildlife at risk from BP’s planned drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
This was the second year that shareholders had filed resolutions at BP’s annual meeting. Last year, I had the honor of joining Greenpeace Campaigner Matthew Spencer in moving a resolution designed to press BP to invest further in solar power. This year, we were joined by Tibetans and their supporters who moved a separate resolution that asked BP to divest its stake in PetroChina.
Inside the annual meeting, the resolution proponents and BP management engaged in debate over the meaning of certain words. Speaking on behalf of Greenpeace, Sister Pat Daly praised BP CEO Sir John Browne for his statement recognizing and addressing climate change. Then she urged him to build on his example by moving BP – in the words of its slogan “Beyond Petroleum” – further into the business of sustainable energy. BP responded with a dramatic reinterpretation of the meaning of Greenpeace’s resolution. The resolution, claimed BP Chairman Peter Sutherland, would force BP to exit the fossil fuel business.
Sutherland then contrasted this wildly expansive characterization of Greenpeace’s resolution with BP’s own much narrowed interpretation of its own slogan. When BP spends millions of dollars stating that it is “Beyond Petroleum,” it does not mean that the company plans to stop pumping hydrocarbons out of the ground. Instead, Sutherland offered a creative linguistic twist on the two words. Still touting BP as the kinder, gentler oil company, Sutherland insisted that “Beyond Petroleum” meant moving away from being the “arrogant, dirty and unaccountable” oil company of old. “We’re the nice oil company,” Sutherland might as well have said. “Trust us. Now go away.”
At first, the resolution proposing that BP divest from PetroChina offered a break in the linguistic exchange. Former Tibetan political prisoner Gedun Rinchen, who spent eight months in solitary confinement for attempting to contact a European human rights fact-finding mission in Tibet, moved the resolution with the Reverend Anthony Poggo, a Sudanese religious leader. They both gave eloquent testimony to human rights abuses suffered by their people and the role of the oil industry in perpetuating that repression. Then, Steve Kretzmann of the International Campaign for Tibet challenged BP to address the inconsistency between BP’s commitment to human rights and the record of its partner, PetroChina. “What does BP stand for?” Kretzmann asked. “Backing Persecution? Beijing’s Partners?”
Kretzmann’s latter characterization did not seem far off the mark. Divesting from PetroChina, Sutherland insisted, would destroy BP’s relationship with the Chinese government and necessitate BP’s withdrawal from China. Sutherland offered little prospect of BP influencing PetroChina and its parent company, the China National Petroleum Company. Despite being PetroChina’s largest foreign investor, BP pointed to its facilitation of several human rights seminars for PetroChina managers as its main impact on the Chinese oil company.
Wordplay aside, BP remains in the hot seat. BP’s tepid response to PetroChina’s connection to human rights abuses places at jeopardy its reputation of respect for human rights. By raising false hopes about the extent of its commitment to sustainable energy, BP risks tarnishing its improving environmental record. The main achievement of this year’s resolutions was to find the current limits to BP’s fuzzy paternalism and outline where the company needs to move forward.