“There’s no way BP will deny us access. They’d be insane to do so. For one thing, they’d be breaking the law. For another, it would be the public relations equivelant of Tony Hayward’s ‘I want my life back’ debacle in response to the oil spill. Shutting Gulf Coast residents out of the first shareholder meeting since the Gulf oil disaster? Ridiculous.”
I don’t know how many times I said those words and to how many reporters in the week leading up to BP’s annual shareholder meeting in London on April 14. I also could not have been more wrong. Five Gulf Coast residents made the long trek to London to attend the meeting, and five Gulf Coast residents were denied entry.
I traveled to London for BP’s first annual meeting since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010 and the subsequent 210 million gallon oil gusher.
I joined Gulf Coast residents directly harmed by the disaster and leaders of the communities within which they live and work: Tracy Kuhns, Mike Roberts, Byron Encalade, Diane Wilson, and Bryan Parras. I came because I had written a book about the disaster in which all five played a part. We came to ensure that BP’s disaster in the Gulf would not be forgotten and to hold BP to account for its devastating and ongoing failures that led to, perpetuated, and compounded the tragedy.
A BP shareholder had given each a proxy, granting them the legal right to take that shareholders place in the meeting.
We had no illusion that BP was unaware of who we were or why we were there. We wanted them to know. In countless interviews that week, the Gulf Coast residents made their concerns well known to BP and the public: the oysters are not back, the shrimp are not back, their people are sick from oil and dispersant, they have no idea when life will get back to normal, and neither BP nor the federal government’s Kenneth Fienberg have paid the necessary cliams on which the Gulf Coast community is supposed to live. In fact, of the hundreds of thousands of claims filed by Gulf residents who have lost income as a result of the disaster, less than 40% have even been processed, much less paid out.
"We came to deliver the message that BP needs to take responsibility for the drilling disaster,” said Tracy Kuhns, a fisherwoman from Barataria, Louisiana and Director of Louisiana Bayoukeeper. “The oil is not gone. Dead wildlife are washing up on our shores by the hundreds. Entire livelihoods are in peril.”
At a teach-in organized by the UK Tar Sands Network on April 12, Tracy’s husband, shrimper Mike Roberts, brought audience members to tears when he shared the story of the first time he encountered BP’s oil. Within miles of heading out from a boat from his backyard, Roberts and his son found themselves encircled in oil and unable to find a path out. Roberts heart broke as he realized the extent of the damage to his beloved Bayou and as he feared for the health and future of his son.
Byron Encalade is the President of the Louisiana Oystermen Association and a leader of African-American and minority oyster fishermen. “I came to London to represent the poor fishers of my community,” Encalade told a BBC radio audience. “I have twelve families that directly depend on my own business. They, and the rest of our community, have not worked nor received claims on which to live since BP’s disaster struck.” Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimper from the Texas Gulf Coast and a founding member of Code Pink Women for Peace came to London to present the 2010 Black Planet award to BP’s new CEO, Bob Dudley, in person. Bryan Parras, a Gulf Coast Fund Advisor with the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, (t.e.j.a.s.), came to tell of the impacts of oil operations on his Houston community and to support the rest of the group.
We began April 14 with a press conference on the steps of the conference center. It was opened with presentations by First Nation representatives opposed to BP’s operations in the Canadian tar sands. Afterwards, I got held up speaking with reporters as the rest of the group went in. They did not get far. When the Gulf Coast residents tried to enter the meeting, they were pulled aside, brought to a separate entrance, and told they could not come in.
I did not know any of this was happening when I tried to enter. My organization, Global Exchange, had purchased shares in BP. I presented my papers and was promptly told by a rather nervous BP represntative that my paper work was not in order. I could enter the meeting, but as a guest, without voting rights and without the right to speak.
Once inside I learned what had happened to the Gulf Coast delegation. I was furious and was going to leave in protest until I looked into my note book and saw the statement I had been given by Keith Jones to read on his behalf. Jones’s son, Gordon, had died aboard the Deepwater Horizon. I had to stay to read it. Moreover, the meeting had begun with Director Carl Svenberg and CEO Robert Dudly emphasizing that they would be expanding BP’s operations further into the world’s deep waters. All the evidence I had collected in my year-long research and writing, pointed to one clear fact: BP had done nothing to demonstrate that it had learned the lessons of the Gulf Coast disaster and that there was any reason whatsover to believe that another disaster like this one would not happen again, without more loss of life, ecosystems, and livelihoods.
I also knew that I had to stay to speak out on behalf of the Gulf, and to ensure that all those in attendance knew that while Svenberg and Dudley touted all the good they had done and were doing there, those who could tell the truth about what was really happening in the Gulf were denied access.
Although some shareholders booed and tried to get me to move away from the microphone before I could read a paragraph of Keith’s statement, I was told by many, shareholders, reporters, and activists, that my ten minutes at the mike were the most dramatic of the meeting – forcing all to listen and ensuring that the message of the Gulf was heard inside the meeting. There is YouTube footage of me giving my statement inside the meeting here, filmed by You & I Films.
I persisted, and finally read this paragraph from his statement:
“This was no act of God. This was not a blowout that was inevitable. No, BP, Transocean and Halliburton could have prevented this blowout. They could have prevented the blowout and still harvested the riches that lay below. They could have carefully and safely completed this well. But to complete the well safely would have taken a little more time and a little more money, and you were just too greedy to wait. You had to make more money faster--- more money faster--- and if that put those who were on the rig as risk, well, sometimes one has to take a few chances, right? After all, none of you were on that rig. You weren’t rolling the dice with the lives of your sons and daughters, were you?”
(Read Keith’s whole statement here and those of other Gulf Coast residents impacted by the spill who could not come to London ).
Though denied access, the Gulf Coast residents were not silenced. Diane stood in the lobby and pulled out her award for Dudley: a globe, which she then doused in black “oil.” She was surrounded by photographers, TV cameras, and police who detained her until the meeting was concluded .
Tracy, Mike, Byron, and Bryan, meanwhile, were swarmed with press. When BP offered to let one of them in, they said “all or none.” When BP said it would arrange a separate meeting with them, outside of the meeting hall, they said, “make it public or no deal.” And BP said no.
We went to London to address BP’s shareholders, executives, and board members directly. We awent to speak to the British and global public so that all would know that BP’s annual report, statements, and advertisements to the contrary, the oil disaster in the Gulf persists, BP has not yet lived up to its legal, financial, or moral obligations to the Gulf and its residents, and that we will continue to apply pressure on the company until the Gulf and its people are restored. We achieved our mission.
Antonia Juhasz is the author of BLACK TIDE: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill  (Wiley 2011). She is the director of the Energy Program  at Global Exchange. She is also the author of The Tyranny of Oil: the World's Most Powerful Industry--And What We Must Do To Stop It (HarperCollins 2008) and The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time (HarperCollins 2006).
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