The decision by BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward to spend a day with his family in England Saturday was perhaps defensible. Two months into the Gulf oil spill, some Americans might grudgingly admit that even a man charged with solving the worst environmental crisis in US history needed a day here or there to recharge the batteries.
The fact he spent that day yachting with his son in an exclusive race off the English coast was perhaps the starkest evidence yet of the BP chief’s deep misunderstanding of American public opinion – or his dismissal of it.
It is possible that, in the eyes of Americans, BP can't do anything right until it plugs the hole gushing tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet since the Deepwater Horizon blowout April 20, BP has hardly helped itself. Mr. Hayward’s day of yachting off the Isle of Wight – mere days after he appeared at once elusive and disinterested at congressional hearings – is the latest in a series of major public relations mistakes that have at times cast BP as bumbling, ill-informed, and callous.
1. Who’s in charge?
On Friday, BP board Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg presented the news that many Americans had long been waiting for. Hayward was being shunted out of his lead role in the Gulf oil spill crisis, to be replaced by BP Managing Director Bob Dudley. On Saturday, BP media relations personnel said the chairman of the board was wrong. They said Mr. Svanberg was suggesting that BP was merely beginning a long-planned and gradual transition of authority to Mr. Dudley “over a period of time.”
2. The ‘small people’
It was not the first time Svanberg misspoke. After meeting with President Obama, Svanberg said he shared Mr. Obama’s compassion for the “small people” in the Gulf. Needless to say, the comment did not go over well. Spoken by a man who owns a yacht in Thailand, the phrase “small people” smelled of rank class condescension. Swedes, however, note that the word “småfolket” in Svanberg’s native Swedish has a positive connotation with undertones of egalitarianism.
3. ‘I want my life back’
Six weeks after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, Hayward uttered these words: “We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back.” To those shrimpers and fishermen who have essentially lost an entire year’s wages – not to mention the families of the 11 men killed in the blowout – this seemed an inordinately insensitive comment.
Moreover, it has now become the prism for Hayward’s yachting excursion. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday: “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.”
4. ‘Very, very modest’ impact
On May 18 – a month after the blowout – Hayward told the BBC: "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest." Four days earlier, he told the British newspaper, the Guardian: "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."
The first has proven to be wildly off base. The second, while containing a kernel of scientific truth, disregards the fact that oil and dispersants could be toxic to certain animals critical to the food chain even in trace amounts. Moreover, the oil has proven concentrated enough to foul the wetlands and beaches of the Gulf Coast.
5. ‘A trickle’
On June 8, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said that the spill "should be down to a relative trickle by Monday or Tuesday." According to the best scientific estimates, between 10,000 and 35,000 barrels of oil (420,000 to 1.5 million gallons) are still leaking into the Gulf daily.
6. 5,000 barrels a day.
Part of the reason for the continued leak is that BP low-balled the flow rate from the well and then refused to try to amend it. For a short time after the blowout, BP estimated that the well beneath the Deepwater Horizon was spewing 1,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf. That was swiftly changed to 5,000 barrels daily. Last week, scientists suggested that the real number could be as much as 60,000 barrels a day – and no less than 35,000.
In the early days, when 5,000 barrels was the working estimate, BP said: “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort,” a BP spokesman told The New York Times.
As a result of that decision, BP didn’t put enough oil-collecting capacity on the surface. It is now rushing to bring in more to collect the excess 10,000 to 35,000 barrels a day of leaking oil.
7. ‘Top kill’: 70 percent chance
The underestimation of the flow rate mirrors the repeated overestimation by BP of its own capabilities. Hayward said that the failed “top kill” procedure, which would have stopped the oil, had a 60 to 70 percent chance of working. It failed.
8. ‘We have turned the corner.’
Earlier, on May 17, BP stuck a siphon into the ruined riser pipe – collecting 1,000 barrels a day – leading Hayward to say: "I do feel that we have, for the first time, turned the corner in this challenge." That siphoning effort was later abandoned.
9. What spill?
When BP share prices recently plummeted, BP intended to convey the idea that it could handle the costs of the Gulf oil spill. Its statement, however, was obtuse to the point of absurdity: “The company is not aware of any reason which justifies this share price movement.”
10. Waste of money?
Six weeks after the spill began, BP started a $50 million TV ad campaign, promising to restore the Gulf. Obama said the money would have been better spent on relief efforts and damage claims.