BP's point man tries to polish tarnished image

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 8:47 PM

Meet BP's Bob Dudley, the human relief well.

This week the Mississippi-bred, wispy-haired Dudley has been paraded through the Gulf coast, the White House and press corps as the new face of BP's fight to contain the damage the oil spill has unleashed on U.S. shores -- and the company's reputation.

One week after BP chief executive Tony Hayward endured a tongue-lashing at a House committee hearing, returned to England and made headlines by going sailing on his yacht, Dudley has stepped in to speed up plans for a free-standing BP unit that will be devoted entirely to repairing the Gulf environment.

But it will take more than Dudley's calm demeanor and American accent to clean up BP's image, which has been blackened by the relentless video of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the widening damage to the environment and reams of damning documents about the rig accident that triggered the spill.

Even Dudley realizes that. "We can understand why the nation is angry with BP," he told a group of reporters Thursday. He added, "until we close the well off, I think there's a period here where its going to be very difficult to restore BP's reputation."

For now, Dudley's task is more concrete. Since the April 20 blowout, hundreds of BP employees have been rushed to the Gulf coast to do everything from consulting on ways to plug the leak to coordinating cleanup. Now BP wants some of them to go back to their regular jobs, while hiring outsiders who might be better suited to running a cleanup operation.

Fixing up disasters, Dudley said, "is not a core competency with us." He said that he hoped to bring in James Lee Witt, who was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton.

"Our intention is to restore the Gulf to the way it was before this happened," he said. It is a task that many environmentalists say might not be possible.

Dudley will report to Hayward, who will return to running the rest of the company after devoting the past two months to the spill. "BP is a big organization around the world, and it needs guidance," Dudley said. Hayward is supposed to travel soon to Russia, where BP has a large, lucrative joint venture. "I'm sure he'll be back to the U.S.," Dudley said. "I just can't tell you when."

Dudley said that by setting up a dedicated division for the oil spill, BP was making a long-term commitment, not limiting its liabilities. He said all 33 claims offices would remain open and be used by Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the new $20 billion escrow fund set up at the White House's behest last week.

He said he would support changes such as adding blimps to help guide skimming boats to oil sheens in the Gulf and paying business claims a month in advance rather than retrospectively so businesses in the region could function better. He also said that BP had "reached out" to the family of a fishing boat captain who committed suicide. Calling it "shocking" and "terribly tragic," he said the company would provide financial support.

Though BP announced three weeks ago that it intended to set up an oil spill unit, administration officials at the White House meeting last Wednesday asked that the plan be put into effect immediately, Dudley said. He will be a key link between BP and the administration. In a meeting Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson told Dudley that she wanted additional tests near the spill site. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar talked about what progress was required before the deepwater drilling moratorium is lifted.

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