Scuffles, protests mar BP shareholder meeting

LONDON (AP) — Scuffles between protesters and security guards marred BP’s first annual shareholder meeting since the Gulf oil spill Thursday, as investors registered their disapproval with sizable protest votes against company directors.

Five Gulf Coast residents who had planned to tell investors about the loss of their livelihoods and health problems after the spill were denied access to the meeting, prompting confrontations with police and security guards outside the building.

Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation fisherwoman from Seadrift, Texas, was arrested after evading security to enter the foyer of the building, where she covered herself in a dark syrup to represent oil.

“I’ve come all the way here from the Gulf Coast,” Wilson said. “My community is gone, and they won’t let me in.”

Police later said a 62-year-old woman was arrested for breaching the peace.

Inside the venue, hundreds of BP PLC investors who have watched the company lose a quarter of its market value — about $55 billion — over the past year and lost their dividend payments questioned board members about excessive executive pay packets and a lack of transparency on safety improvements.

Preliminary voting results released by the company showed significant disgruntlement among shareholders.

Around 25 percent of investors who voted before the meeting, representing 60 percent of shares, voted against the re-election of the head of BP’s safety committee, William Castell.

About 7 percent voted against the re-election of chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, who has been criticized for his soft response to the spill, and just over 11 percent voted against the company’s remuneration report because of bonuses awarded to Iain Conn, BP’s head of refining and Chief Financial Officer Byron Grote for work not related to the oil spill.

Former CEO Tony Hayward also grabbed headlines with a $17.9 million pension, $1.6 million payoff and about $13 million in share options despite a series of public gaffes that led to his ceding the CEO post to Bob Dudley, the first American to head the London-based company.

The results contrasted with data from Pirc, the investor advice service, which show British company directors were, on average, last year re-elected with less than 2 percent of the vote against them.

Still, some shareholders were clearly ready to move on, with frequent smatterings of applause for Dudley, including for his opening statement that “BP remains a great company with a great history and I believe a great future.”

“Not every company gets such an opportunity and we don’t intend to squander it,” he added, referring to lessons learned from the Gulf disaster.

As a mark of respect for the upcoming anniversary of the Macondo well explosion, Dudley read out the names of the 11 men killed in the April 20 incident, which has cost BP around $40 billion so far.

BP executives, including Dudley, have made relatively few public appearances along the Gulf in the months leading up to the anniversary. By the end of March, the number of BP employees and contractors working the response to the oil spill was down to roughly 2,000, compared with 48,000 at the height of the spill last summer.

Dudley attempted to appease major institutional shareholders, including Calpers, the biggest U.S. public pension fund, and the Florida State Board of Administration, which are unhappy about a lack of transparency over safety improvements at the company.

He said that management intended to recommend to the board the appointment of an external expert to implement the recommendations of an internal report into the spill — as it did after the deadly Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 in which 15 people died.

“We’re finding it isn’t so easy to find someone,” Dudley said. “We want to make sure that person is independent and experienced.”

Dudley stressed the company’s three priorities post-spill as strengthening safety, winning back the company’s reputation and restoring long-term value for shareholders, but he also insisted the company would press ahead with deepwater drilling and would double its exploration efforts.

Dudley and his fellow board members are battling to convince some institutional shareholders that they have a firm grip on the company’s future after a year that began with the Gulf of Mexico disaster and is ending with a botched major oil exploration deal in Russia.

The company gained some critical breathing room on the Russian problem just hours before the meeting when Russia’s OAO Rosneft agreed to move the deadline to complete a $16 billion share swap with BP from Thursday to May 16.

The deal was to cement BP’s move forward from the Gulf spill and show it no longer needed to rely so heavily on the U.S., where it is still barred from drilling in the Gulf. The initiative ran aground after a quartet of Russian billionaires, BP’s partners in the older TNK-BP venture, won an injunction in the London courts, claiming the new deal violates their own agreement with the London-based company.

Rosneft spokesman Rustam Kazharov declined to comment when asked whether the company planned to look for another partner to replace BP in the deal to explore the Russian sector of the Arctic.

In London, Dudley and Svanberg dodged questions from shareholders about why the company hadn’t consulted more fully with TNK-BP before announcing the Rosneft deal.

“I think we have to be realistic,” Svanberg said when asked if BP was confident of coming to an agreement with TNK-BP to lift the injunction. “We are in the middle of a process involving three parties and exactly how that will unfold I don’t think we should speculate here, but I assure you we will do what we can to land it in a good way.”

Dudley said BP had made a joint offer with Rosneft for TNK-BP, but said BP would not offer large amounts of shares to resolve the dispute, particularly as BP believed it had not violated its agreement with TNK-BP.

Outside the building, a rowdy group of local union members demonstrated over a dispute at a BP-owned factory in Hull in northern England, banging drums and blowing horns as they were watched by police.

More protesters did gain entry to the meeting and tried to access the stage during a discussion of the company’s controversial tar sands project in Canada. They were dragged away by security.

Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association and one of those denied entry, had said he wanted to object to the compensation process, claiming many oystermen have been denied payments or given insufficient payouts.

“We’ve not been made whole: our fishing grounds have been depleted, our oysters are dead and we’re not receiving the funds we need to support and sustain ourselves,” Encalade said. “BP says they are paying out all this money. Where is it?”

In contrast to complaints like Encalade’s, BP has been running regular television commercials in the Gulf region that often feature residents who talk about how BP helped them and how they believe the Gulf Coast has largely recovered from the spill.

The official count on resolutions at the meeting, which incorporates the votes cast during the meeting Thursday, will be released Friday, BP said.

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