Oil Spill: Goodbye, Mr. Hayward

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When Tony Hayward became CEO of BP in 2007, replacing a disgraced Lord John Browne, he was taking over a company in turmoil. BP was still recovering from a 2005 fire at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 people—one of the worst industrial accidents in recent memory, and a result of Browne putting profits over safety. Hayward—a skilled geologist and dedicated BP lifer—was meant to be a practical antidote to the flashy, globe-trotting Browne, a professional executive who promised to consolidate the company’s sprawling multinational operations. Most of all, Hayward would change BP’s careless corporate culture; he pledged in an early speech to focus “like a laser” on safety.

It was a line that, like much else, Hayward would come to regret. The Deepwater Horizon accident showed that there was still something deeply wrong with BP, and Hayward’s tone-deaf performance during the early days of the oil spill only made things worse. By mid-June Hayward had stepped back from the oil spill, ceding day-to-day control of the response to the American BP executive Bob Dudley. Now it seems Hayward is gone for good. According to a senior U.S. official speaking to the Associated Press early Sunday afternoon, Hayward will be replaced as BP’s CEO, possibly as early as Monday when the company’s board meets in London.

Though BP was officially denying the rumors, Hayward’s departure has long been considered of when, not if. Since the spill began on April 20, Hayward has been a gaffe machine. Here are just a few of his greatest hits:

-On April 29, according to the New York Times, early on in the spill Hayward told his fellow BP executives in frustration: “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” (Well, according to the early results of investigations into the Deepwater Horizon accident, quite a lot.)

-On May 13 Hayward told the Guardian that the oil spill was “relatively tiny”:

The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.

In fact by that time, with the broken well gushing up to 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf, as much as 1.4 million barrels of crude might have already been lost, making it already worse the than the Exxon Valdez spill.

-On May 18, Hayward told Sky News that the environmental impact of the spill “will be very, very modest.” That’s, uh, not true.

-On May 30, as he was touring the Louisiana coast and apologizing for the spill, Hayward told reporters “I would like my life back,” referring to the way the spill had taken over his time. There’s even video!


-Also on May 30, responding to reports that spill cleanup workers were falling ill, Hayward played doctor. “Food poisoning is clearly a big issue,” he said. In fact there are serious concerns about the toxic effects of the oil spill.

-On May 31, faced with a number of scientific studies showing evidence that large clouds of oil were forming deep underwater—where they could damage Gulf sealife—Hayward simply went for denial. “The oil is on the surface,” he said. “There aren’t any plumes.” This is also not true.

-And of course no one will forget Hayward’s bravura performance before Congressional investigators on June 17, when he revealed that he apparently knew very little about, well, anything at all that had to do with the Deepwater Horizon accident. A summary of particularly choice Hayward quotes from that extremely uncomfortable day:

I can’t possibly know why the decisions were made [on the rig].

I don’t know.

I can’t answer the question in that form. I can’t recall the number.

I can’t answer because I wasn’t there.

I’m afraid I can’t recall.

I can’t recall that either.

That was a decision I was not party to.

I don’t know.

I’m afraid I don’t know that either.

Perhaps not coincidentally, shortly after Hayward’s appearance before Congress, BP announced that Dudley—an American executive who had previously run BP’s troubled Russia operations—would be taking over day-to-day control of the oil spill response.

And now it seems that Dudley will be taking over as CEO as well. Since Dudley has been the face of BP’s response for more than a month, the change is unlikely to make a big difference on the spill. If anything, the move signals that BP may believe the initial phase of the disaster is over, with the well capped and a relief or static kill expected to be completed within the next few weeks. It was unlikely that BP was going to get rid of Hayward in the teeth of the crisis—now, with the active part of the spill over, Dudley can start with something close to a fresh canvas.

At the very least, Dudley is no stranger to crisis. His work has taken him around the world, and he endured a rough ride in Russia, where he experienced what he called “sustained harassment” by Moscow and was forced to all but flee the country in June 2008 when his visa wasn’t renewed. Billy Nungesser in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana is tough, but he’s not Vladimir Putin.

As for Hayward, it’s not clear what the future holds. For all his gaffes—and his palpable failure to change the corporate culture in BP—Hayward strikes me as something of a tragic figure. It was his predecessor Lord Browne who presided over BP’s worst safety problems, only to leave Hayward to clean up the mess—something the geologist knew. In an interview before he was named CEO in 2007, Hayward talked about the effect that the death of a worker under his command in Venezuela had on him:

I went to the funeral to pay my respects. At the end of the service his mother came up and beat me on the chest. ‘Why did you let it happen?’ she asked. It changed the way I think about safety. Leaders must make the safety of all who work for them their top priority.

Instead of fixing BP, however, Hayward will be remembered for presiding over the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.