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BP on the Rack Over Ecology and Ethics of Investment Projects

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/04/20; April 20, 2001.]

by Marie Wolfrom

LONDON, April 19 (AFP) - Angry campaigners rebuked British oil giant BP on Thursday over its environmental and human rights record, embarrassing top executives in a public debate that went to the heart of the climate change issue.

BP, which last year restyled itself as an eco-friendly energy company complete with a green-and-yellow helios logo, faced down criticism at its annual general meeting for its slow take-up of renewable energy projects and its involvement in a pipeline project in Tibet.

The company was also under fire for the way it treats its own shareholders, after it managed to suppress further criticism of its international dealings by invoking arcane statutes.

Dozens of activists from the Free Tibet Campaign gathered outside the central London meeting venue, unfurling a vast Tibetan flag and brandishing placards urging BP to divest its stake in Chinese company PetroChina.

The campaign argues that BP's involvement in the Chinese group compromises its claims to ethical investment, particularly as PetroChina is planning to complete a vast pipeline across Tibet.

"When PetroChina completes its pipeline across the Tibetan Plateau it will devastate the traditional lifestyles of Tibetan nomads," former Tibetan political prisoner Gedun Rinchen told the meeting.

"It is my strong belief that BP should not fund these disastrous development plans," he added.

The second group putting forward a special resolution to the meeting was Greenpeace, which has long since sought assurances from Britain's largest oil group over its plans for investment in renewable energy.

Campaigners said BP had failed to live up to its newly-minted 'Beyond Petroleum' image of a caring, environmentally-aware energy group. Greenpeace has its own idea of what BP stands for: burning the planet.

"BP was the first to admit that there is a concern about what they are doing to the environment," said spokeswoman Cathy Cooper. "But they have put a minuscule investment into solar energy.

"They are also expanding aggressively into fossil fuels, so in a way they are even more involved in generating carbon emissions," she told AFP.

But the pressure groups wrested little ground out of BP management.

"The fact is the world need for hydrocarbons is increasing and we need to meet that demand responsibly," said chairman Peter Sutherland. "It is all very well to talk about stopping using fossil fuels, but on a global scale that would be a disaster."

He added that disinvestment from PetroChina meant pulling out of the Chinese market. "That would be a mistake and would be wrong," Sutherland said.

Ultimately both resolutions were voted down overwhelmingly by shareholders.

Yet the embarrassment of management was palpable, particularly when chief executive Sir John Browne was asked if there was any country in the world in which BP had decided not to invest on ethical grounds.

"I won't list the countries where we don't do business, because I believe it uncivil and inappropriate," he answered after some delay.

Mindful of the discomfort of facing down such criticism, BP managed to quash two other resolutions before the AGM, including one on plans to drill in an Alaskan nature reserve, arguing that the forum with shareholders should not be hijacked by special interest groups.

But this provoked further criticism of its corporate governance, particularly as the protesting groups have bought shares in BP, theoretically entitling them to have their say.

Protesters opposing BP's drilling plans for Alaska were nonetheless present on Thursday.

"We want BP to live up to their environmental image and cancel plans for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," said Rene Wendell, drawing attention to his concerns with a blow-up caribou.

He said it was estimated caribou numbers -- currently at 150,000 -- were estimated to diminish by 40 percent if exploration went ahead.

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