Even before tar balls invaded the Gulf Coast, deeds mattered a lot more than talk. Which is why the large majority of us down here have about as much use for new BP CEO Bob Dudley as we did for Tony Hayward.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re happy that his board of directors has given him his “life back” this week, though the eight-figure golden parachute is a thumb in the eye for a region where everyone is either worried about their job, or their neighbor's.
“Now that the well is somewhat capped, the games have already started,” says the mayor.
It’s just that it’s hard for those who have watched hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil and chemical dispersant flow into the Gulf to take anything BP says seriously. Since April 20, we’ve heard how BP was going to “make it right,” only to see commitment after commitment fall far short of expectations. They have been told that the spill was small, that the accident on the rig couldn’t have been prevented and, most critically, loss claims would be handled promptly. As one beach resident told me early in this crisis over beers at the Sandshaker Lounge on Pensacola Beach, “BP are pros at ‘slow-walking’ everything once the cameras are pointed elsewhere.”
Thus, the hiring of an American as a CEO seems just like more slow-walking. “Hayward’s ouster is totally immaterial,” shrugs Sena Maddison, public-information coordinator with the Escambia County Sheriff’s office, who spent her weekends manning her county’s Emergency Operation Center when tar balls began washing up on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. “I resent them firing him and putting an American in his place, thinking we will swallow it.
“If they were firing him for incompetence, they should have done it long ago,” she adds. “This is another PR move.”
It’s been that way from the start, injecting an unusual cynicism into a traditionally upbeat culture—Gulf Coast residents are now collective experts at public-relations spin. Two weeks after the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform, image specialist drones dubbed “community liaisons” delivered the BP talking points, variants of, “BP is doing everything in our power to stop the flow of oil, minimize the impact on your shores, and keep the public informed.”
The problem: They were unable to answer any technical or financial questions. Their purpose was transparent: Insulate Hayward and the Unified Command. Pensacola City Councilman Larry Johnson went so far as to halt an official presentation by these spin doctors specifically because they couldn’t tell local officials what was actually going on. (“I hope Mr. Dudley will do a better job,” he tells me, warily.)
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• Eric Dezenhall: BP's Latest PR Debacles Chasidy Hobbs, the executive director of the Emerald Coastkeepers, has battled BP officials over the testing of air and local waters. “I don’t give a damn,” Hobbs tells The Daily Beast when asked about Hayward’s dismissal. “His firing will not clean millions of gallons of dispersed oil from my Gulf, nor will it bring back the way of life for millions of Gulf Coast residents. It is nothing more than a political move.”
Even the politicians see through the politics. Gulf Breeze is a small Florida town of less than 7,000 that sits on a peninsula between Pensacola and Pensacola Beach. To date, the town has submitted almost $200,000 in invoices for its oil cleanup and protection efforts, but has only been reimbursed for about $89,000.
“We are pawns of BP,” says Gulf Breeze’s mayor, Beverly Zimmern. “Now that the well is somewhat capped, the games have already started. It’s getting harder and taking longer for us to get paid. I can’t imagine how bad it will be once it’s completely capped.”
“I don’t think a new CEO,” she adds, “will make any difference.”
Larry Newsom’s experience was even more emblematic. The administrator of Escambia County on Florida’s Panhandle, he has been battling BP, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, over resources, from containment booms to the use of the sheriff’s helicopters to direct cleanup operations to more skimming vessels to faster reimbursement.
BP issued the state of Florida two $25 million grants to help the state and local governments deal with the millions of gallons of crude oil spewing from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. But those sums seem woefully small, and little of that $50 million has made it to Escambia County, the first Florida county hit by the tar balls.
“At least he didn’t call us ‘little guys’ like the board chairman did,” says Newsom, when challenged to come up with a good aspect of Hayward’s leadership. (When asked about local residents, BP’s Swedish-born chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, famously told a reporter, “We care about the small people.”)
Gulf Coast residents have been battle-tested by three hurricanes, Ivan, Dennis, and Katrina, in the past six years. This summer was supposed to be the year Gulf Coast tourism fully recovered. It didn’t. In fairness, BP did its part, with $70 million to help promote local tourism. I do find great irony, though, in the fact that these grants, the only payments of significance that I’ve seen arrive ahead of schedule, centered on marketing and PR spin.
Good riddance, Mr. Hayward.
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.