BP’s Tony Hayward Gets Benched

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Throughout his Congressional testimony yesterday, BP CEO Tony Hayward had one consistent message: he did not know what was going on in the tumultuous weeks leading up to the Deepwater Horizon accident. He had no direct knowledge of the company’s much criticized decisions in drilling the well, and he had no comment on the causes of the oil spill, saying that he would wait until a “full investigation was completed.” He was very sorry about the spill, and pledged to do everything he could do fix it, but as to the cause of the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history—Tony Hayward has no opinion at this time.

So maybe this bit of news won’t really matter that much. In an interview with Britain’s Sky News, BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said that Hayward would step aside from daily involvement in BP’s oil spill response:

Asked by Randall about Mr Hayward’s ongoing role, Mr Svanberg said: “He is now handing over the operation to Bob Dudley.” Robert Dudley has been the managing director of the oil firm since 2009, and prior to the appointment he was president and chief executive of TNK-BP, Russia’s third largest oil and gas company. Mr Svanberg also told Randall that comments by Mr Hayward have had detrimental effects as the company seeks to control the fallout from the disaster.

“It is clear Tony has made remarks that have upset people,” Mr Svanberg said.

There’s no immediate indication that Hayward would step down as CEO. (Characteristically, Hayward didn’t answer when a members of Congress asked him yesterday if we would resign, but said he was focused fully on responding to the spill.) And there are good reasons for BP to keep Hayward on for at least a little while longer. Turning the company around after a disaster as immense as the Gulf oil spill—the analyst Raymond James yesterday put the total cost at north of $60 billion—will be an equally immense job, and any new CEO will want to start with a fresh slate, not one that is still oozing oil. Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, told me yesterday that he doubted Hayward would resign soon. “I think it’s almost inevitable that he will tender his resignation eventually, but I don’t think it will happen soon,” Finkelstein said. “It would send a signal of total disarray in the boardroom if they decided to hang him out to dry now.”

That’s probably true—although it’s hard to imagine how much more disarrayed BP could get. But getting rid of the guy who said all this couldn’t hurt.

Update: CNN is now reporting that Svanberg might have misspoken:

BP spokesman Andrew Gowers tells CNN that Svanberg was just reflecting a June 4 announcement about BP Managing Director Bob Dudley taking over the long-term disaster response. He said Hayward’s current role has not changed.

We’ll see how it ultimately shakes out—watching the interview with Svanberg, you could interpret his comments in that way, and Svanberg has misspoken before. But in the midst of the greatest disaster BP will ever face, the company clearly needs a strong, visible leader—and the muddle over Svanberg’s comments shows they don’t have one.