Proxies Aim To Have Their Say At BP’s Annual Meeting

April 14, 2011       Samuel Fanburg      

Hoping to display the human cost of consequences stemming from the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill last spring, Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation fisherman from the Texas Gulf Coast, attended BP’s annual meeting this morning in London.

“People in the media like to ask us why we are so upset,” Wilson said in an interview last week. “I am coming to the annual general meeting (AGM) to call BP to account for its actions in the Gulf — for the oil spill, the lies, the cover-ups, the skimping on safety, the deaths, the nonexistent documents and the ‘swinging door’ with regulators.

”Part of a five-person delegation funded by the New Orleans, La.-based Gulf Coast Fund, Wilson and her cohorts planned to appear at the BP annual meeting as proxies to directly engage BP leadership and its board of directors about the corporation’s response to the Gulf oil spill. The Gulf Coast Fund does not own shares of BP stock but through a partnership with the UK Tar Sands Network, based in London, England, was to appear as a proxy on behalf of the nonprofit organization.

The AGM is “an opportunity for shareholders to question the company and raise any matters of concern,” said BP spokesman Robert Wine, declining further comment.

Having activists or affected residents appear as proxies on behalf of other nonprofits is not something new and has been a useful in engaging the leadership of major corporations.

At the BP annual meeting, the group will have the option to vote for or against the annual report submitted by BP. Although the group has issues with items in the report, they had not yet decided how to vote, choosing once they were to meet in London, Bryan Parras, board member for Houston’s Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), said last week.

Besides a discussion with leadership, there is not much more the group can accomplish in terms of getting BP to enact change, said Mark Regier, director of stewardship investing at Everance Financial, based in Goshen, Ind. “If you want to be involved in filing a resolution in the United States — rather than just voting or attending an annual meeting, it requires ownership of more than $2,500 in stock for a continuous period of one year,” he said.

BP stock opened trading this morning at $45.302 per share.

In England though, the rules for filing a resolution are much more difficult, said Louise Rouse, director of engagement at U.K.-based FairPensions. To file a shareholder resolution, one needs either 5 percent of the issued shared capital or 100 shareholders who between them hold £10,000 worth of nominal share capital.

The resolution also must direct the shareholder to undertake a certain course of action and cannot be submitted if it is inconsistent with law, the company’s articles of association or if it is defamatory of any person.

Antonia Juhasz, director of the energy program at San Francisco, Calif.-based Global Exchange, has been attending shareholder meetings for years, experiencing the ire of corporations firsthand. “Last year when I was at the Chevron annual meeting in Houston, I was bothered by how security would not allow many of our proxies in,” she said. “I felt that it was my responsibility to meet the concerns of the folks who were not allowed in. After I spoke well beyond my allotted time, I was literally dragged out of the room and was put in jail, charged with trespassing.”

The charges were dropped eventually and Juhasz had every intention to attend the BP meeting this year, just not as part of the delegation from the Gulf Coast Fund. “The annual report was a dodge on responsibility and really taking ownership of the problem,” said Juhasz. “The reason I’m going is because BP is fighting every attempt to make sure its liability is acted upon.”

Wilson had a similar experience to Juhasz when she participated in her first shareholder meeting at Formosa Plastics last year in Taipei, Taiwan. After Wilson and her group were barred from entering the meeting, they broke through the locked entrance where they sat on the floor for the rest of the meeting.

The group has no intentions of making a spectacle this year, said Parras. “Our intent is to express to the board of directors what our concerns are,” he said. “I think they need to hear from people on the Gulf coast who have been affected by the oil spill.”

Juhasz said that from her experience, shareholders have been very interested in what proxies like Wilson and Parras have to say. The public has not heard the personal stories these people bring to the table, putting a human face on what transpired.

Parras, who has not had any direct connection to the consequences of last year’s oil spill, will use his time to read comments and suggestions that he has brought from those affected people who remain in the United States.

“When folks see a story on the national level, it is often in a positive light with the oil being gone,” said Parras.”This is just not what we are seeing on the ground. A large part is that doctors have been ill equipped to make the correct diagnosis. There have been a tremendous amount of health problems stemming from the Gulf oil spill.”

Juhasz believes the British people also are interested, adding that as active investors in the company they want to see the results of what can happen when drilling goes wrong.

“It is critically important for people who have shares of a company to understand that real people are impacted and there are costs every single day those communities have to bear,” said Juhasz. “It’s very difficult to make those costs human and tangible.”