Special Report

Sic Transit Tony Hayward: BP’s Abused and Fumbling CEO

But he committed far fewer gaffes than the august Obama administration.

By 7.30.10

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People who live in glass houses -- and this is a category that includes many reporters, pundits, and leading political figures -- love to throw stones. They especially like it when they are all aiming at the same target and boiling over with righteous indignation -- to mention two of the common attributes of mobs. Tony Hayward, the just deposed CEO at BP, had a legitimate point when he said that he had been publicly "demonized and vilified" over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. That said, through his own fumbling and fragility, Hayward made the perfect fall guy.

"The Most Hated and Clueless Man in America," shouted a headline in the New York Daily News. "What Not to Say When your Company is Ruining the World," Newsweek fulminated in another headline. Newsweek taunted Hayward for "making gaffe after gaffe defending his company's response to the Gulf oil spill." And then there was never-let-a-crisis (or a juicy oil spill)-go-to-waste Rahm Emanuel, who was at his sneering best in an ABC News interview:

Well, to quote Tony Hayward, he's got his life back, as he would say… and I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting. This has just been part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes.

President Obama got into the fun when he declared that he would have fired Hayward if he (Obama) were in charge of things at BP. "He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements," Obama said, speaking of a man he had never met and speaking of a situation (running a large business enterprise) that is far removed from his own knowledge and experience. During the same interview, the president made his famous remark about going down to the Gulf to talk to people, "so I know whose ass to kick."

Apart from holding the top job at BP, what did Hayward say or do to merit all this huffing and puffing? Let us sort through all these terrible "gaffes."

Hayward got off on the wrong foot on May 18, stating that the Gulf is "a very big ocean" and "the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest." This infuriated a lot of people -- beginning with those most inclined to fits of hysteria, which is to say the environmental activists -- and it set the stage for the media to pounce on any comments or actions that they might consider inappropriate, such as daring to appear before the American public in anything other than sackcloth and ashes.

On May 30, Hayward told reporters, "There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would love my life back." This was whiney, to be sure, and cause for much derision. Then on June 19, Hayward was observed to be taking part in a boat race around the Isle of Wight. Emanuel and other self-appointed critics howled with outrage that BP's CEO was not devoting himself to managing the crisis 24/7.

And that's it -- those are all the "gaffes" committed by Tony Hayward.

Where he really went wrong, I would submit, was to look rattled, and even scared, during the Grand Inquisition that took place over several press conferences and the Congressional hearing during which one screaming and oil-smeared protester called for his imprisonment and had to be wrestled to the ground by half a dozen policemen. Nothing excites would-be attackers so much as the whiff of fear emanating from a potential victim.

BUT IT IS WORTH NOTING the media's bias and selectivity in making sport of Hayward. If BP's CEO was to be pilloried for taking any kind of a break during the midst of the crisis, why not the president? After all, the U.S. commander-in-chief made a big show of declaring himself to be charge of the whole operation and he publicly vowed that he would not rest until the hole had been plugged and damage cleaned up. Yet Obama drew little criticism for playing several rounds of golf and taking no fewer than three mini-vacations in the three months following the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20 (i.e., the first to Asheville, N. C., just three days after the event, the next to Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, and the last to Bar Harbor, Maine, on July 17).

If "gaffe" is used in the normal sense of the word -- meaning a clumsy error, faux pas, or foolish blunder -- surely U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar committed a number of gaffes back in May when he repeatedly referred to BP as "British Petroleum" (a name that the company had dropped a dozen years ago) and turned it into a term of opprobrium -- saying that it was his intention to "keep a boot to the neck of British Petroleum."

Salazar made it sound as though the evil Brits had wished this terrible thing upon their American cousins. Obama's demand that BP "pay up" -- big time -- had the same effect. From listening to Obama and Salazar you would not have known that the U.S. citizens and institutions are almost as deeply invested in the company (with a 39% share of BP's ownership) as their British counterparts (40%). Nor would you have known that BP has 24,000 employees in the U.S. compared to just over 10,000 in the U.K. That's right -- more than twice as many as employees in this country.

In macho man style, Salazar, a lawyer and career politician, even threatened to push BP "out of the way" if it didn't move faster. This was too much for Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, overseeing the federal response, who gasped: "Replace them with what?" (In a wonderfully sarcastic editorial on May 26, the Wall Street Journal noted that Salazar "wouldn't know an oil drill from a dental drill.")

Certainly, all the bluster and grandstanding by the president and his interior secretary did nothing to advance the common objective of plugging the hole and cleaning up the damage. It only succeeded in causing unnecessary offense to our British friends and allies. Nor were the American people impressed. In national polls, the great majority of Americans say that the government has done a poor job of responding to the crisis (the Obama administration has received lower scores on the oil spill than the Bush administration did on Hurricane Katrina).

Lo and behold, it now seems possible that Hayward could actually be right in his original prediction that the Gulf spill is likely to be much less of an environmental calamity than many believed.

On July 26 -- the same day that news came out of Hayward's resignation -- ABC News carried a special report saying that oil from the spill was becoming "increasingly hard to find." "At its peak last month," ABC News reported, "the oil slick was the size of Kansas, but it has been rapidly shrinking, now down to the size of New Hampshire.… The numbers don't lie: two weeks ago, skimmers picked up about 25,000 barrels of oily water. Last Thursday, they gathered just 200 barrels." Ed Overton, a professor of environmental studies at Louisiana State University, told ABC: "Mother Nature is doing what she is supposed to be doing and we're losing most of it [the spilt oil] to microbial degradation in the open ocean."

Admiral Allen -- who is still around to provide a sense of adult supervision in the cleanup operation and the final stages of permanently sealing the now-capped gusher -- agrees. The National Incident Commandant (his official title) observed: "It is becoming a very elusive bunch of oil for us to find and do anything about." Hundreds of skimmers have been idled as the size of the oil slick has diminished.

NONE OF THIS IS TO SUGGEST that the environmental damage -- and the damage to marine life -- won't be long-lasting and severe. Scientists worry that patches of oil below the surface could reduce oxygen levels and endanger many species of fish and marine mammals. No one can tell what the final outcome may be.

What is certain is that the blowout in the Gulf will be remembered for a very long time as an extremely traumatic and costly accident. Eleven crew members lost their lives in the ferocious explosion on the night of April 20 and thousands of people living and working along the Gulf coast have suffered real economic hardship. Without a doubt, as I endeavored to show in an earlier article in the Weekly Standard (entitled "Beyond Pathetic: BP's Gulf disaster was no surprise to those who understood the corporate culture," link), this was a preventable accident. This accident involved a whole chain of mistakes and failures of a human or managerial nature. It was human failure rather than technological failure. Was BP's top management (including both Hayward and his predecessor John Browne) at fault? Absolutely, say the insiders cited in my article.

One of the ways that BP began to go wrong almost a decade ago was in short-changing safety and basic engineering excellence in a dash for faster growth and higher profitability through international acquisitions and forging closer ties with political leaders in the United States and elsewhere. BP became more and more of a politicized, rent-seeking company and one that paid a lot of lip service to the easy part of safety (e.g. telling people to hold onto the hand rails and keep the lids fastened on their coffee cups) while slashing maintenance budgets on aging and rusty rigs.

It was under Browne's tenure as CEO that BP became the first major oil company to embrace "the clean energy future" that Obama and other leading Democrats so love to talk about. In fact, BP has been walking that walk and talking that talk for a dozen years already. BP never fails to play up all it is doing to promote solar panels, windmills, and other forms of alternate energy in its annual reports and other publications. Until the blowout, it went about calling itself the "green" petroleum company. The company and its people have been large political contributors. According to Politico, "During his time in the Senate and while running for president, Obama received a total of $77,051 from the oil giant and was the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money over the past ten years."

In today's context, it is funny to see how President Obama and others have seized upon oil gusher as an excuse to revive cap-and-trade (or cap-and-tax). The fact is, with help from Enron, BP invented cap and trade and has been trying to sell it to Congress. Browne brags about it in his memoir published early this year:

In order to know where to reduce carbon emissions, we wanted to develop a simple emissions trading scheme. It would become the first of its kind. And the person instrumental in helping us set this up was Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environment NGO. We had come full circle. This NGO had virtually single-handedly halted the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in the early 1970s.

And now BP has come full circle again. It is back to being regarded as evil incarnate by the left-wing politicians it has spent so much time and money courting over the past decade. As Tony Hayward could tell you, events since April 20 have shown just how ready this government is to throw its corporate benefactors under the bus for reasons of political expediency.

Andrew B. Wilson is a writer and business consultant.

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, writes from St. Louis.