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CALIFORNIA / News and Insight on Business in the Golden
State

Unocal's Overseas Ties Draw Protest

June 02, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unocal Corp. has been generating profits--and controversy--by exploring for oil and natural gas in such unstable places as Myanmar, Indonesia and, potentially, Afghanistan.

As protesters marched outside the company's Brea facility Monday, Unocal Chairman and Chief Executive Roger C. Beach told the annual shareholders meeting that the El Segundo-based oil giant has overhauled itself in the last two years, selling its gas stations and oil refineries to become a "super independent" that searches for oil and gas internationally.

"Unocal has tremendous potential for future growth" without sacrificing social responsibility, Beach said. "This is fundamental to the way we do business--and a key to our success."

But Carol Richards, a founder of the activist group Burma Forum, said the company "has been transformed into a rogue band of adventurers who will now make a deal no matter how dirty, no matter how risky, with the most appalling regimes on Earth."

The L.A.-based group has called for the Unocal board's ouster in protest of the company's dealings in Myanmar, formerly Burma, which is home to a military regime that has been widely condemned for terrorizing political opponents.

So went the latest gathering of oil industry shareholders, with activists pushing a variety of causes before Big Oil investors not always in the mood to listen.

Unocal's event included a few dozen protesters and a large papier-mache elephant denouncing Unocal's ties to several Asian regimes.

But as they did last year, shareholders overwhelmingly defeated measures asking the company to limit or rethink those business ventures.

Opponents of Unocal's participation in a $1.2-billion, multinational Myanmar pipeline and of a potential pipeline deal in Afghanistan were allowed to speak in support of shareholder resolutions to review executive compensation and possibly tie that pay to corporate responsibility, to investigate charges that the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise is involved in drug trafficking, and to assess the cost to Unocal of the increasing opposition to its Myanmar operations.

Each of the resolutions was rejected by more than 90% of the shares voted, but each received more than the 3% needed to be reintroduced at next year's meeting.

Afghanistan is a more recent controversy for Unocal. The company is considering participating in building a pipeline there but won't do business in the country until a stable government is installed and peace is restored, Beach said.

Feminist groups say that any activity in Afghanistan would support the ruling Taliban militia and its restrictions on women.

"It was a start," said Katherine Spillar, national coordinator for the Feminist Majority Foundation. "We wanted to shine a bright light on the issue."

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