BP chief Bob Dudley faces a grilling at this week's shareholder meeting

BP’s chief executive Bob Dudley faces yet more controversy at the oil giant’s upcoming AGM, as critics query the failed £10bn Rosneft deal.

BP chief Bob Dudley faces a grilling at this week's shareholder meeting
The momentous game-changer for BP was the Macondo well explosion, which sank the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: Reuters

There were a few titters and bored sighs at last year’s annual general meeting of BP as one long-standing private shareholder made a somewhat lengthy point about why the oil giant should improve its well cement procurement.

The cavernous ExCel convention centre was brightly decked with the oil company’s familiar green and yellow branding, but the investor gathering was sleepy, with the same old faces asking the same old questions.

Environmental groups were not happy with BP’s investment in the Canadian tar sands. Ethical shareholder groups registered a minor protest vote against high executive pay. Others nodded off during the first address of the new chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, simply passing time until the free lunch.

The mood might have been more engaged had investors known of the cataclysmic event that just five days later would see the value of their stable shareholdings plummet by 50pc and a previously reliable dividend disappear for three quarters. It would also end the BP career of Tony Hayward, the chief executive beloved by shareholders for forcing through a £2bn cost-cutting programme that created a leaner, more profitable oil giant.

The momentous game-changer was the BP Macondo well explosion, which sank the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men.

It has emerged over the past 12 months that one major cause of the oil spill was faulty cement work by BP’s contractor Halliburton. Another investigation concluded that cutting costs had led BP and its partners to cut corners on safety. AGM attendees should have been more attentive.

After BP’s annus horribilis, grievances are likely to be voiced more loudly at this year’s annual shareholder meeting on Thursday.

The British company has barely left the headlines for the past year. At its most nightmarish hour, when oil had been leaking into the ocean for two months, the company drew the public ire of US President Barack Obama himself, and BP’s future in America looked uncertain.

After stopping the flow of oil and agreeing to a $20bn compensation fund for victims, the slide in BP’s share price was arrested and it has now begun the slow task of trying to restore its reputation.

But surviving the $40bn cost of the disaster was just the start of it. BP then caught the eye of Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who sanctioned a £10bn Arctic exploration deal with state oil company Rosneft.

In the second blow of the year, this deal has been blocked in the courts by BP’s four existing billionaire partners in Russia, known as AAR, who may have to be paid billions of dollars to sanction the agreement.

As a consequence, hundreds of investors will be descending once more on the Excel centre in south-east London this Thursday, to air their unhappiness about the year in which BP lost more than a quarter of its value – £34bn.

Some are planning to vote against the re-election of the chairman or the senior independent director, Sir Bill Castell. Others want the company to provide more details about how it will improve safety procedures, since BP and its main contractors have been blamed for “systemic failures” and poor management. In its annual report, BP claims to have reorganised divisions to focus more on safety and align management bonus targets with safe operations.

However, some shareholders want more details on BP’s specific plans to improve operations. Those unhappy with the current lack of transparency are the UK’s Church Investors Group (CIG), holding £200m of BP shares, whose members include the Church Commissioners and the Methodist Church Central Board of Finance.

Bill Seddon, CIG vice-chairman, said: “Concerns remain about BP’s disclosure, so we will be joining other CIG members in voting against the re-election of the chair of the board’s safety committee and the company’s remuneration report. It’s not just about what’s written in the annual report, it’s about how they’ve communicated with the whole investment community.”

Meanwhile, the big institutions want to know how BP’s attempted deal with Kremlin-backed oil company Rosneft has ended up in such a bitter legal dispute. They have already come to terms with the cost of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and now harbour most worries about how the dispute in Russia will turn out financially. TNK-BP, the joint venture owned by BP and the four billionaires, produces around a third of the British company’s oil output, so warring between the shareholders causes significant anxiety.

“The company has been saying ‘trust us’ for so long, but we’re really coming to near the end of our patience,” said the head of corporate governance at one of BP’s top 20 shareholders.

“We think Bob Dudley did and does have a game plan for Russia, but it’s a very risky and complicated one. The whole dispute is distracting management and could end up being very expensive if the oligarchs have to be paid off. It’s certainly not doing anything for the company’s reputation in our eyes.”

However, his investment fund is still undecided on whether to vote against or abstain on the re-election of board members or the remuneration report. “It would be a big thing for us, pretty rare,” he said, underlining the fact that key shareholders prefer to exert pressure on management behind closed doors than make public displays of dissatisfaction.

A handful of investors have gone on the record with their concerns.

Euan Stirling, investment director at Standard Life, told the BBC’s Today programme that the Rosneft deal was “another fine mess for BP”.

In light of these major causes of unease – Russia and America – shareholder anger may also focus on high executive pay. Both Pirc, the investor advice service, and the Association of British Insurers have issued warnings about excessive packages, especially as Hayward walked away with up to £8m in share options at today’s price on top of his £11m pension pot and £1m pay-off. Although Mr Dudley has waived his bonus, two directors, Byron Grote and Iain Conn, will still receive rewards for their financial performance. And share packages are large across the board – despite the fact that BP made one of the largest losses ever in corporate history.

Aside from complaints about the size of the pay packages, some shareholders are equally unhappy about the company’s methods of communication. Julie Tanner, director of the US Christian Brothers Investment Services, explains her group was left with no other option than to register a protest vote. “We first approached the company in December saying we were thinking of tabling a resolution forcing more transparency on how safety would be improved,” she says.

BP managed to convince them that more information would be available in the group’s annual report – but when this was finally published, there was no sign of specific criteria against which safety would be judged. By this time it was too late to table a resolution, so the groups decided to vote against the remuneration report.

Another institutional investor points out that BP’s annual report announces the £10bn Rosneft deal as a success in the chairman’s message and includes the admission that it has been blocked by a court order only as a footnote. “It’s characteristic of the company’s misjudgments over communication,” he says.

As well as those with a financial interest in the company, the meeting will be a magnet for general protest groups ready to seize on the opportunity BP has given it to bash Big Oil.

Antonia Juhasz, author of a new book, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill, has flown to London with a couple of Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill, armed with a small BP shareholding to get them into the meeting.

“We want to make sure that the oil still on the ocean floor and the dispersant still in the water is not forgotten,” she says. “We in the Gulf are the cautionary tale for BP’s other investments, like the tar sands. This is what happens when an oil company operates irresponsibly in a technically challenging and environmentally sensitive area.”

With all the critics, it’s easy to forget the company still has the loyalty of long-standing shareholders, who have stuck with the company for decades, including all the triumphs and crises of the Lord Browne years.

Brian Peart, of the UK Shareholders’ Association, believes BP is likely to face tough questioning but many retail investors will hold back from voting against resolutions after the company’s bruising year.

“I don’t think there will be any particular action by UK shareholder members,” he said. “There will be questions over the general fact that they let the disaster happen. It has been very bad for shareholders and the image of the company but any challenge will probably come in the form of questions at the AGM.”

If there is one thing that BP’s management can boast about, it is the company’s survival. At one point last year, as the leak had dragged on for 60 days, it looked like the Macondo well explosion could have sunk the company as well as its stricken rig.

But the 101-year-old British company has proved its resilience – and is showing no sign of losing its fighting spirit yet.