My review of The Oil Road has been printed in today’s Independent. Here’s the original 600 word version that I submitted:
The Oil Road by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (Verso Books, £16.99)
In the same way our culture has become largely ignorant of the journey our food takes to get to our table, we are also ignorant of the route fossil fuels take to power our high-consumption, energy-intensive lifestyles. It’s the way both agribusiness and the energy companies like it – the less we know about the far-flung impacts of their enterprises the better.
Marriott and Minio-Paluello are two campaigners with the London-based oil watchdog Platform – an organisation that has bred a kind of activism that, while based in hard research, experiments with creative ways of communicating its findings. In The Oil Road the pair take one continuous trip along the route by which oil from the Caspian Sea arrives at the rate of a million barrels a day at the refineries of Western Europe.
The project is reminiscent of last year’s Extreme Rambling – Walking Israel’s Barrier for Fun by comedian-activist Mark Thomas, but comes after 12 years of visits along the route as part of an ongoing exploration of the impacts of BP’s controversial $25 billion investment in drilling platforms and pipelines. Here too we get to meet vicariously the people shaping and shaped by the route in question and reconstruct a more accurate picture of what is otherwise a hotly politicised, and therefore deliberately obfuscated, reality.
The journey starts at the Caspian oil wells in Baku, Azerbaijan where the familiar rusting landscapes of Soviet era ‘nodding donkey’ oil derricks are being overshadowed by the shiny steel and glass of a corrupt construction boom. The authors meet Sabit Bagirov, who led the state oil company during the negotiations that culminated in the signing of the ‘Contract of the Century’ in 1994, with a consortium of oil companies headed by BP.
Bagirov argues that the oil companies used the backdrop of the Azeri-Armenian conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory (1988-1994) to argue for a greater share because they would be operating in an environment of high-risk. Indeed over the course of the negotiations from 1989 to 1993, the proposed Azeri share dropped from 50% to 20%. Bagirov shows them the unpublished contract that includes a $90 million sweetener payment to the Azeri government, $30 million of which was delivered personally by Baroness Thatcher.
Once on the road we meet refugees from the now “frozen” conflict as well as householders under whose properties the pipeline runs and farmers still awaiting compensation for loss of income during the laying of the pipe. The ubiquitous BP public relations representatives are generally diverting and evasive but occasionally unwittingly frank. “The ultimate goal of community investment is to have good relations with communities – ultimately to secure BP’s assets,” says one about the corporation’s token social projects.
“We closed it down to the media,” says another when asked about the Russian bombing of the pipeline that BP had dismissed as “fanciful”. Our narrators had been able to confirm the reports of the attack by locating the site and standing in the surviving craters which ran up to four metres deep.
It’s a personable and lovingly-crafted narrative, a rich tapestry of first-hand anecdote and historical reconstruction with a political and social excavation of the geography that weaves in the region’s changing fortunes, from the Tsarist through the Soviet to the current pro-western repressive regimes.
Along the way there are important lessons for investors about how oil companies manage and disguise risk; for policy makers about the real meaning of “energy security” in the 21st century; and for activists thinking about where and when to intervene in a complex system.
Tensions ran high at the Tate Modern on Friday 7 December. At the members’ AGM, the Tate Members Council and Director Nick Serota were met with yet another barrage of criticism over their longstanding sponsorship arrangement with controversial oil giant BP.
For some time campaigners have argued that BP sponsorship is not an act of art-loving philanthropy, but a shrewd business deal contributing significantly to BP’s construction of a ‘social licence to operate’.This helps them to evade public or political pressure even though its operations involve such terrible consequences to communities, ecosystems and the climate. In the last couple of years, this has driven art-activist collective Liberate Tate to use Tate gallery spaces to carry out a series of dramatic, unsolicited performance interventions that contextualize the reality of BP’s operations.
The Tate Members Council isn’t really a decision-making body, but it is there to represent the views of over 100,000 fee-paying members. It is the largest membership body of any cultural institution in Britain, generating more than £5 million ($8 million) annually. This year, some members sent a letter to the council laying out a number of concerns about the sponsorship relationship, and came along to the AGM to flag it up in person.
At the very start of the meeting, the council’s chair, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow, acknowledged that space would be given to discuss the BP issue, but I don’t think he or Nick Serota or deputy head Alex Beard were expecting the tricky questions to come so thick and fast as they did, and not only from those representing the letter-writers.
Tate’s Ethics Policy states that Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when: ‘The donor has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct.’
Earlier this month, BP agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion settlement for criminal charges regarding the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, on top of a number of similar court cases in recent years. Serota defended the stance, saying that BP’s operations aren’t ‘fundamentally’ criminal – but it seems like an awful lot of criminality is stacking up as part of the whole picture.
The meeting’s discussion kept returning to the sum of money that Tate is getting from BP. Despite being a public body, and having been the subject of numerous Freedom of Information requests, Tate refuses to disclose the actual sum, saying that it would be ‘harmful to commercial interests’. It seems that this might be a convenient strategy to cover up how little the sum might actually be.
The dominant discourse that Tate likes to maintain is that ‘terrible things will happen if we don’t have the BP money’ – but not disclosing the amount of money prevents any real debate from taking place about what those ‘terrible things’ may be, and whether there might be any alternatives. Under information law, the ‘commercial interest’ defence can be outweighed by the ‘public interest’ argument – so what Tate is effectively doing is prioritizing BP’s commercial interests in the sponsorship arrangement over the public’s interest in discussing how Tate could find alternatives.
At the end of 2011, BP made a sponsorship deal worth £10 million ($16 million) over five years with four different cultural institutions, including Tate. If you divided it equally, and if this is the only money that Tate is getting from BP, you’re talking about just £500,000 a year. That’s a tenth of what Tate raises from its membership scheme, prompting one woman at the AGM to exclaim, ‘is that all?’ In the 2011/12 financial year, Tate’s incoming resources were £113 million ($182 million). So this possible contribution from BP represents less than half of one per cent of Tate’s total income. Could Tate really not accommodate a budget shortfall of less than half of one per cent?
Here are a couple of ideas for starters – how about holding a referendum among Tate members to see if people would be willing to increase their membership fee by a couple of pounds to accommodate the shortfall? Why not aggregate a bunch of smaller, but more ethical, companies to co-sponsor Tate in a co-operative fashion?
Tate seems to be making excuses for institutional inertia after having received BP money for more than 20 years. With an increasingly climate-conscious public, and the certainty of more disasters like Deepwater waiting to happen, it’s high time it took concrete steps to disentangle itself from Britain’s most controversial corporate sponsor.
Thespian activist collecitve Reclaim Shakespeare Company are claiming victory as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s short-lived association with BP comes to an end. In a statement issued to The Independent the RSC said: “We have no further sponsorship [with BP] confirmed ” The activists claim that the RSC’s programme for 2013 has been announced and that none of the productions appears to be sponsored by BP.
Yesterday four playlets were performed inside the Great Court of the British Museum in protest at BP’s sponsorship of the Shakespeare exhibition the space currently houses. Alongside the principal performers, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company estimate another 200 “actor-vists” participated in a chorus of:
Double double, oil is trouble
Tar sands burn while greenwash bubbles
Double double, oil is trouble
Let’s reduce BP to rubble.
On 15 November BP admitted it was guilty of 14 criminal charges in relation to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and accepted fines totaling $4.5 billion – the biggest combined fine in US history. The charges include lying to Congress. The increased police and security presence at yesterday’s event would appear to suggest that BP’s public relations largesse comes increasingly not just with a reputation and credibility cost to the recipient but with a financial one too.
Performer Richard Howlett said:
“As the reality of climate change becomes ever clearer, the case for ending oil sponsorship of the arts is gathering momentum. The RSC seem to have seen sense, and decided to no longer act as a figleaf to hide BP’s destructive activities. The British Museum, Tate, National Portrait Gallery and others must now do the right thing and follow suit.”
Climate action in London continues tomorrow as activists gather to shut down a conference hosted by the Canadian Embassy in partnership with Shell and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office aimed at increasing investment in the Canadian tar sands. Shell is the subject of a legal action brought by the Athatbascan Chipewyan First Nation over the threat posed by the company’s tar sands developments to their traditional ways of life. The UK and Canadian governments have been effectively colluding to delay European legislation which would effectively prohibit importation of tar sands oil into the EU due to it’s relatively high carbon footprint. Professor James Hansen has said that “exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”
Greenpeace undercover sting breaking today reveals plot within UK Conservative Party to undermine the Climate Change Act. Peter Lilley is caught on camera saying: “Basically I think [George] Osborne wanted to get people into key positions who could begin to get government off the hook of the commitments it made very foolishly. We could well see, certainly amendments to the Climate Change Act, cease to make it legally-binding, make it advisory.” Put together with the recent promotion of sceptics and anti-environment Tories into key positions and the capture of government by the gas mafia, this has all the makings of one big shit-storm. It also explains how the government intended to square the building of 20 new gas-fired power stations with its legally-binding commitments on the Climate Change Act. It didn’t…
Naomi Klein interviewed while spending time with Occupy Sandy, helping victims hit by the hurricane in New York and New Jersey, and explaining the rationale behind 350.org’s Do the Math tour – coming to a city in the US near you over the next few weeks (7 November-3 December).
We know how much carbon can be released into the atmosphere and still have a hope in hell of staying below 2 degrees – which by the way is too warm. What we’re experiencing here is less than 1 degrees warming. So imagine what two degrees warming would look like. But governments agree on how much carbon can be released into the atmosphere and have a chance – not a guarantee but a chance – of staying below two degrees. And what we know is that fossil fuel companies already have in reserve five times as much carbon. Meaning they’re planning their business models to destroy the planet . They’ve declared war on us. We need to fight back. Direct action is a part of that but we can’t fight this one pipeline at a time, we need to go after their business model.
Part of the campaign to end fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts, Tate à Tate is a series of three alternative audio tours commissioned from artists (including a collaboration between Climate Radio’s Phil England and radio artist Jim Welton) which explore this issue of BP’s controversial sponsorship of the Tate galleries. They are designed to be listened to in the galleries themselves, but if you are unable to visit in person, you can still listen to the works online.
Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when […] The donor has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct.
Workshops around these alternative audio tours are available to groups of students, activists, artists or academics, and if you are moved to do more, here are some suggestions for other things you can do to help to make fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture socially unacceptable.
As the UK’s environmentally-illiterate government seems intent on building a new generation of gas-fired electricity stations that would lock us in to a high-cost energy supply and blow any chance we have of meeting our commitments under the Climate Change Act, around 30 activists have taken matters into their own hands by occupying and shutting down the in-construction West Burton gas station. Hurrah! Check out the latest images and video clips of their protest.
Update: The final two occupiers came down on Monday 5th November after stopping the operation of the power station for a full seven days. Sign and share this petition against the UK’s dash-for-gas; come to this public meeting in London on 19 November; see the protestors’ solutions; and follow the group on Twitter or Facebook to find out about upcoming actions you can get involved in.
Art collective raises questions over John Browne’s conflict of interest as ex BP CEO
Press release: 15 October 2012
Tate Trustees have decided not to accept ‘The Gift’, a 16.5m wind turbine blade, as part of its permanent art collection.
‘The Gift’ was installed in Tate Turbine Hall in an unofficial performance on 7 July, involving over 100 members of Liberate Tate, the group that has made headlines for dramatic artworks relating to the relationship of public cultural institutions with oil companies.
The artists submitted official documentation for the artwork to be a gift to the nation ‘given for the benefit of the public’ under the provisions of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992, the Act from which Tate’s mission is drawn.
The refusal of the offer comes despite the fact that more than a thousand people signed a petition started by a Tate member calling on Nicholas Serota and the Tate board to accept the artwork and return the blade to the Turbine Hall for public viewing.
Informing Liberate Tate of its decision, Tate stated the reason being that: “in line with the current strategy, commitments and priorities for the Collection and the size of the object in relation to existing pressures on collection care – the offer of The Gift is declined.”
Giving Liberate Tate 7 working days’ notice, Tate also said that if the art collective did not respond by 16 October, it would “recycle” the artwork.
Today, 15 October, Liberate Tate has responded asking Nicholas Serota questions including:
- Whether Tate chair Lord Browne (and ex BP CEO) chaired the agenda item when Tate Trustees considered The Gift.
- Whether Tate Trustees considered The Gift within the context of the Tate Sustainability Strategy it has agreed.
- Whether Tate Trustees have also agreed a Size Strategy.
- Whether Tate Trustees considered The Gift as art.
The decision comes at a time when controversial art sponsors have again been in the news. Last week the National Gallery announced that its sponsorship agreement with arms dealer Finmeccanica was ending a year early following on from protests and public pressure.
Sharon Palmer from Liberate Tate said:
“We are not disappointed for us as artists – our future work will continue to be seen at Tate as long as BP is supported by Tate, although we would welcome an early end to our practice – but we are disappointed for what this decision says about the present nature of the institution that is Tate.”
“Recent studies have shown that BP sponsorship of the Olympics managed to improve the public perception of the company, despite the fact that they are continuing to devastate the climate and are pushing ahead with devastating tar sands extraction and arctic drilling. Tate’s relationship with BP is fulfilling the same function in actively helping the oil giant to avoid accountability for countless destructive activities. The Gift is an artwork that celebrates the possibility of real change – for Tate as much for everyone else facing the challenges of the climate crisis.”
The Gift is Liberate Tate’s fourth artwork in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall.
The government’s own advisors have today issued what amounts to a damning indictment of UK climate policy. Climate changing emissions fell by just 0.8% in the UK in 2011 after adjustments for a warm winter, high fuel prices and a slight drop in average earnings. At the launch of the Climate Change Committee’s Fourth Annual Progress Report this morning, Professor Dame Julia King said that “underlying progress was basically flat.” The report notes that the “lead-time … has now elapsed. Therefored the step change is needed urgently if we are to remain on track to meeting future carbon budgets.”
Decarbonising our electricity production is critical so the CCC says the Draft Energy Bill now before parliament needs to include a “clear carbon objective” and they recommend an Emissions Performance Standard of 50gCO2/kWh for electricity producing power stations to be reached by 2030. This compares to the 450g/kWh in the current draft of the Bill which the CCC say will drive a second dash for gas and add £25 billion by to the cost of energy bills by the 2020s.
Another key test for the government over the coming months will be whether or not they commit to including aviation and shipping in the UK’s annual carbon budgets. CCC CEO David Kennedy this morning described this a “no brainer”.
Over the remaining sectors, any progress was “relative to a low level of ambition for the first budget period.” The impression given of the current state of UK climate change policy was one that could – at best – be characterised by drift. The report includes 21 recommendations (see page 13) for action.