No clean start for BP

WAYWARD HAYWARD Departing BP boss Tony Hayward, 53, will receive a $940,000 yearly pension, a $1.6m pay off and more in shares. Bereaved families will not fare so well.

He’s the casualty of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe least likely to elicit sympathy. BP announced this week that beleaguered chief executive Tony Hayward, described in a US newspaper on 2 June as “the most hated – and most clueless – man in America”, is to go “by mutual agreement” on 1 October. He will be replaced in the top job by Bob Dudley, whose American accent is expected to be less galling to US ears.

Hayward – whose high profile gaffes included telling CNN, as the oil lapped the Gulf coast, “I’d like my life back” – will at 53 qualify immediately for a £600,000 ($940k) annual pension, a £1.045m ($1.6m) pay off in lieu of notice and a multi-million portfolio of company shares. He will be given a place on the board of BP’s Russian offshoot as a consolation prize and will retain his seat on BP’s global board until 30 November.

On 27 July 2010, the day Hayward’s departure was announced, BP laid a marker on its planned response to the threat of criminal action, saying BP did not believe it was “grossly negligent” in regard to the oil disaster.

BP is not just in the business of deflecting bad news; the oil giant is working flat out to manufacture a good news story. Its ‘Gulf of Mexico response’ webpages are unremittingly positive. Featured sections say variously “We’re tackling the leak at its source”, “We’re capturing oil from the ocean surface”, “We’re cleaning Gulf beaches 24/7”, “We’re paying all legitimate claims for losses” and “We’re rehabilitating birds and other wildlife”.

But BP’s constant flow of good news on the oil spill clean-up operation is not going unquestioned. This week BP monitoring figures showing even the oil clean-up workers in the riskiest jobs in the Gulf of Mexico are generally having minimal exposures to hazardous chemicals were queried by experts.

BP’s release of detailed sampling data, something urged by the official watchdog the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), met with praise from some experienced industrial hygienists but failed to assuage critics who remained sceptical that worker exposures could be so low given the amount of oil and dispersants used to battle the leak.

CLEAN START? Producing oil may be a high risk business, particularly if you plumb unmanageable depths in the world’s oceans. But BP’s problem stems from its first priority: producing profits.

Eileen Senn, an occupational hygienist and long-time workplace safety official, pointed to 10 separate shortcomings in the quality of the company’s data release, which OSHA said concentrated on workers with the heaviest potential exposures, including the move to sample for 11 chemicals when many more substances are potentially present in Gulf air.

Senn also criticised the company’s blending of samples taken where exposures were likely to be low – in areas where crude or dispersant was not nearby – with areas where exposure was more likely due to the presence of fresh oil.

“Given the 200 million gallons of oil spilled, 10 million gallons of oil burned, and 2 million gallons of dispersant applied, BP couldn’t possibly make a credible assertion that there is nothing for cleanup workers to fear in the Gulf air,” she said. “They need the illusion of science to make their audacious claim seem believable.”

If the sample is biased to those “most likely to have the heaviest exposures” – which OSHA says is the case – and the majority of these are recording no exposure at all, BP is performing an occupational health magic trick that is beyond its safety “operating management systems” in every other sphere of its operations. If the claims for this system had any element of truth, we’d never have seen the Deepwater Horizon blast kill 11.

BP certainly doesn’t achieve a similarly blemish-lite performance on safety, something evident from ‘personal safety’ and five year trend figures on its website. Its performance on occupational health is more opaque, with no similarly accessible data available online; nor is it covered in the BP 2009 annual report – a document which makes repeat references to improving safety performance.

BP is also employing an army of novices working in difficult environments who, by any estimation, would normally be expected to be at higher risk than workers better versed in the use and hazards of chemicals. And included in their number is prison labour.

A 21 July report in The Nation notes: “By tapping into the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get workers who are not only cheap but easily silenced – and it gets lucrative tax write-offs in the process.” It adds: “Work release inmates are required to work for up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, sometimes averaging seventy-two hours per week. These are long hours for performing what may arguably be the most toxic job in America… Inmates can’t pick and choose their work assignments and they face considerable repercussions for rejecting any job, including loss of earned ‘good time’.”

Commenting on the decision to step down in October, BP chief executive Tony Hayward said: “The Gulf of Mexico explosion was a terrible tragedy for which – as the man in charge of BP when it happened – I will always feel a deep responsibility, regardless of where blame is ultimately found to lie.” Parroting the good news story on the BP Gulf response webpage, he added: “We have now capped the oil flow and we are doing everything within our power to clean up the spill and to make restitution to everyone with legitimate claims.”

This includes less celebrated casualties of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, notably the 11 rig workers who died, whose dependants are between them unlikely to receive “legitimate” recompense totalling anything like the lifetime supply of BP cash Hayward is to enjoy. His pension pot already is valued at about £11m.

BP hopes the departure of Hayward will be the beginning of the end for its Gulf of Mexico woes, and the reputational harm that came with it.

However, just three years ago when Hayward took over the helm, BP was also hoping a change of leadership would create clear blue water between the firm and other safety and environmental blunders, notably the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 on the watch of Hayward’s cost-cutting predecessor Lord John Browne.

Hayward at the time told journalists his number one task was to “focus like a laser” on safety and reliability. He delivered neither. Not only was he leading the company when it was implicated in the worst environmental catastrophe in US history, a failure to remedy serious safety violations following the Texas City tragedy saw BP as recently as 30 October 2009 receive the USA’s largest ever safety fine.

Producing oil may be a high risk business, particularly if you plumb unmanageable depths in the world’s oceans. But BP’s problem stems from its first priority: producing profits. Like Browne and Hayward before him, new CEO Bob Dudley will be judged on the bottom line.

Without a substantial improvement in the regulation and scrutiny of the industry, in the US and internationally, safety and the environment could once again be the casualty.

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