Yesterday I attended Shell’s Annual General Meeting in The Hague, to address the board and shareholders.
Shell, one of the largest multinational corporations in the world and a company that prides itself in having strong stakeholder relations, was taken aback by a barrage of questions from shareholders and groups attending. Shareholders questioned Shell’s inability to effectively and adequately meet the needs of local communities, basic safety standards, changing global energy models and economies, global climate change, and basic business standards of corporate social responsibility.
Shell is a company that’s modelling its business projections on scenarios in line with a 6-degree global temperature rise, doubling its already huge tar sands developments on the traditional territory of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), and lobbying hard to stop EU climate legislation that would discourage tar sands imports. It’s also pressing ahead with plans for offshore drilling in the Arctic (though not this summer) and deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and has a huge, messy legacy to clean up in Nigeria.
I was honoured to head to the Shell AGM in the Netherlands with two incredible and fearless women, Mae Hank from Point Hope, Alaska, whose community is at risk of being hit by a gigantic oil spill should Shell press ahead with its Arctic drilling plans, and Eriel Deranger from ACFN in Alberta, where Shell has been violating their treaty rights for over 55 years (watch her explaining more about this in the film below.)
The theatre of the AGM is designed to inspire shareholder confidence in the board, so raising criticism in this environment can be quite an intimidating experience. Our concerns about the company abusing human rights, devastating the environment and playing russian roulette with our climate all have to be translated into a language that will make shareholders take notice. Plain clothes police and security guards litter the entrance as you go in.
You have to queue for almost an hour to ask a question, on a mic at the front of the auditorium. You’re directly addressing the board, who sit above you on a huge podium, and it’s also going out on a livestream. I was so moved and inspired when Mae took to the podium and addressed the board with a powerful elegance in her traditional language. Her unwavering commitment to speaking her native dialect was first met with cynicism by the board, but quickly turned to respect and a captive audience.
“I had hopes that Shell might take into consideration the worst case scenarios of an oil spill,” Mae reflected. “We strongly oppose offshore drilling and I will always oppose it because my children and grandchildren love our traditional foods. Our traditional foods have been embedded in our genes for thousands of years. I get my strength to speak up when I think about my family. I had hoped to get a plan of action from Shell in the event of a spill, and commitments to compensate our community for any loss to our food security for the next 20 generations, as the economy in our community is suffering. Non-native food subsidises our traditional food, so we often have to ration food during difficult times.”
After the meeting, Mae spoke with Simon Henry, Shell’s Head of Finance, over coffee and lush pastries, and pushed him on his commitments to be able to ensure that, in the incidence of a spill, Shell would be able to replace the food that comes from the sea, as this makes up 80% of their diet. He said they would not commit to compensating the community and could not offer the people food security in the incidence of a spill.
“It’s difficult to think that future generations may be displaced because the largest mammal we get out of the ocean is the whale,” said Mae. “Our traditions and the rituals we practice that celebrate the bountiful catch of bowhead whale will not be there. Without being able to celebrate that, our community will be displaced. Our right to practise our religion and culture will be threatened by the leases considered by Shell. The corporate community often fails to consider our food security when making these decisions, and it breaks my heart.”
We also challenged Shell over the failing business case for tar sands. I wanted to make the case to Shell, on their own terms, for why tar sands investment is such a bad idea. I asked them how they could possibly justify spending their shareholders’ money on projects that are bound to be affected by a whole host of risks: the falling price of tar sands oil due to opposition to pipelines in the US, litigation from communities like ACFN, new legislation such as the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive, and research from Carbon Tracker which clearly shows that 80% of fossil fuels are ‘unburnable’ and are vastly overpriced. Shell brushed my concerns off, of course, but they will be quaking in their boots when they see we were right.
“This is the third time I’ve attended Shell’s AGM,” Eriel Deranger explained, “and it feels like they’re finally starting to take notice of the serious concerns we bring forward, not only as impacted communities but as key stakeholders. Today I brought forward our concerns to Shell’s Board about current and proposed tar sands projects and the lack of adequate consultation. I sincerely hope the Board keeps its word to speak with their Canadian president to address our concerns, and potentially adjust the environmental impact assessment process. If Shell continues to move forward in project development without working directly with our community it will continue to lead toward more delays in project approvals, litigation and severe financial risk for Shell.”
We will also be attending the shareholder meeting in London tomorrow, so stay tuned!
Coverage from the day:
Shell board grilled on Alaska oil project – Financial Times
ACFN activists crash Shell AGM – Fort McMurray Today
Indigenous Activists Challenge Shell – Price of Oil blog
A blow-by-blow account of the questions asked and responses given, including many of our tweets!
New film about ACFN’s struggle against the tar sands and Shell