Rio Tinto’s shareholders are green and angry

Suzie Neuwirth

A shareholder at Rio Tinto’s annual meeting today accused the company of “getting as bad as BP”, referring to its health and safety record due to 33 deaths at the Grasberg mine in Indonesia last year.

The two companies make an interesting comparison, BP having had its own annual meeting last week.

While both are multinational, multibillion-pound resource firms that have had their fair share of controversies, there was a marked difference between the two AGMs.

BP’s investors were mostly interested in executive pay, but Rio Tinto’s shareholders hardly brought this up – despite chief executive Sam Walsh taking home over £5m last year.

The key focus of Rio Tinto’s annual meeting was environmental and social issues – and lots of them. There were calls for Rio Tinto to divest its stake in Grasberg; to sell off dirty thermal coal; to stop trying to mine under Arizona’s Oak Flat; criticism for developing the Ranger uranium mine.

There were also questions about a lack of tax paid in Mozambique (Rio generated huge losses here, hence no corporation tax) and the environmental impact of its mines in Madagascar.

There was even a question about the Rossing uranium mine in Namibia and controversy in the 1970s.

In fact, the one environmental plaudit Rio received was for pulling out of the Pebble Mine in Alaska.

To his credit, chairman Jan du Plessis let everyone have their say without cutting them off. Even the shareholder who called for the annual report to be in a different font and ink colour as it was making him squint.

There really wasn’t much corporate news to come out of the meeting – a bit of chat about aluminium (“The aluminium industry globally has experienced headwinds of the kind of force that no one could have envisaged at the time”) and mention of an audit tender (by 2019 at the latest), but this AGM was most definitely about the environmental impact of Rio Tinto the resource reaper.

Looks like BP shareholders need to up their game for next year’s meeting.