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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, with shrimpers blocked from entering Thursday's meeting to demand more compensation.
The protesters included five Gulf Coast residents who had planned to tell investors about the loss of their livelihoods and health problems after the spill. Outside the building, separate groups demonstrated over BP's polluting tar sands project in Canada and labor disputes in Britain.
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," Ms. Wilson said. "My community is gone, and they won't let me in."
Inside the venue, hundreds of BP PLC investors who have watched the company lose a quarter of its market value — some $55 billion — over the past year and have lost their dividend payments questioned board members about excessive executive pay packets and a lack of transparency on safety improvements.
But there was also support for BP's board from some quarters, with new Chief Executive Bob Dudley frequently winning smatterings of applause for his comments, including 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, stressing the company's three priorities post-spill as strengthening safety, winning back the company's reputation and restoring long-term value for shareholders.
Mr. Dudley and his fellow board members are battling to persuade 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 United States, where it still is 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, Mr. Dudley and BP Chairman Carl-Henric 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," Mr. 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."
Mr. Dudley said BP had made a joint offer with Rosneft for TNK-BP, but he said BP would not offer large numbers of shares to resolve the dispute, particularly as BP believed it had not violated its agreement with TNK-BP.
As a mark of respect for the upcoming anniversary of the Macondo well explosion in the Gulf, Mr. Dudley read out the names of the 11 men killed in the April 20 incident, which so far has cost BP some $40 billion — and former CEO Tony Hayward his job.
Outside the building, a rowdy group of local union members, banging drums and blowing horns as police watched, demonstrated over a dispute at a BP-owned factory in Hull in northern England.
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, earlier 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," Mr. Encalade said. "BP says they are paying out all this money. Where is it?"
Mr. Dudley said 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. We want to make sure that person is independent and experienced," Mr. Dudley said.
Mr. Dudley also acknowledged unhappiness with a lack of detail about safety improvements in the company's annual report, agreeing that information was "light" but would be stronger this year.
Before the meeting, Calpers, the biggest U.S. public pension fund, and the Florida State Board of Administration said they would join other smaller U.S. and European religious and ethical funds in voting against the reappointment of Bill Castell, the head of the safety, ethics and environment assurance committee. The two state pension boards together own some 0.4 percent of BP's stock.
Pirc, the investor advice service, and the Association of British Insurers have issued warnings about excessive pay packages for two BP executives. Iain Conn, BP's head of refining, and Chief Financial Officer Byron Grote are receiving $505,000 and $621,000, respectively, for work not related to the oil spill.
Mr. 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 Mr. Dudley.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this story.
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