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Why is Tony Hayward still on the job?

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, June 4, 2010

How is it possible that BP chief executive Tony Hayward hasn't been fired? At this point, how can anyone believe a word the man says? If he told me my mother loves me, I'd want a second source.

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Hayward has apologized for his one lapse of candor -- the now-famous whine last Sunday that "I'd like my life back." It must be a nice life indeed: According to Forbes, Hayward's total compensation from BP in 2009 was about $4.6 million. The Louisiana fishermen who've been put out of work by the oil spill are accustomed to getting by on considerably less. In a Facebook posting, Hayward said that his callous words "don't represent how I feel about this tragedy, and certainly don't represent the hearts of the people of BP."

Within hours, though, Hayward's foot was firmly lodged in his mouth yet again. The effort to contain the oil and keep it away from the Gulf Coast has been "very successful," he told the Financial Times. "Considering how big this has been, very little has got away from us." This sunny assessment came as television networks broadcast images of oil-soaked Louisiana marshes, where hazmat-suited workers -- who said they were under orders from BP not to talk to the media, on pain of getting fired -- were trying to sop up the mess with what looked like rags, as if this were a gargantuan kitchen mishap. Meanwhile, mousse-like clumps of "weathered" oil were being washed onto beaches in Alabama, and authorities in Florida were watching the approach of a menacing, oily sheen. Scientists have not even begun to assess the potential long-term effects of the oil spill on human health, marine life and coastal ecology. Carol Browner, the president's chief adviser on energy and the environment, said that the Deepwater Horizon incident is already the worst environmental disaster in United States history.

Give yourself another pat on the back, Tony.

Adm. Thad Allen, who is directing the response effort, is a nice guy -- in terms of his public handling of BP, too nice. On Thursday, as BP proceeded with its latest attempt to cap the flow, Allen praised the company for providing several different camera views of the action on the sea floor. But for weeks, BP refused to make public any television images of the oil leak, and relented only under pressure from U.S. officials.

Hayward's statements about the effort to plug the well have been consistently unreliable, and it hardly matters whether he's being deliberately misleading or just overly optimistic. The giant containment dome was going to work; it didn't. The second, much smaller containment dome would do the job; it was never even deployed. The "top kill" procedure was surely going to stop the flow, and early indications, according to Hayward, showed that it was succeeding. Yet oil industry veterans such as T. Boone Pickens said the top kill was a long shot at best, and they were right.

And as for those giant underwater oil plumes that scientists and journalists keep discovering? Hayward denies they exist. His position is that of a philanderer caught in the act by an irate spouse: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" Since the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig six weeks ago, BP's stock has lost more than a third of its value. Two ratings firms, Fitch and Moody's, have downgraded the company's long-term debt, and estimates of what it will cost BP to stop the leak and clean up its mess range from $3 billion to $30 billion. All this happened on Hayward's watch.

Somebody, please, give the man his life back.

But once that's done, let's turn our ire on the real villains. This exercise will require a mirror.

An accident such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout was bound to happen sooner or later. There are nearly 4,000 oil rigs off the Gulf Coast, and those pumping most of the crude are in deep waters -- where, as we now know, state-of-the-art safety procedures are inadequate. President Obama's moratorium on deep-water drilling will last only long enough for some sort of technological band-aid to be devised. Then we'll crank up the drills once again.

We know that our dependence on oil is ultimately ruinous, yet we refuse to take measures -- a meaningful carbon tax, for example -- to ease it. Long after Tony Hayward answers for his sins, we'll be paying for our own.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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