Published: May 13 2010 14:39 | Last updated: May 13 2010 14:39
It is 7pm at BP’s crisis centre in Houston, Texas, and two masseuses in royal blue scrubs are giving chair massages to those in need of a break on the night shift.
About 170 of the 500 people in the centre working to cap the oil well leak and contain the spill in the Gulf of Mexico are on duty. Several are filling Styrofoam plates at a buffet of barbecued chicken, rolls, salad and chocolate chip cookies.
One man sits in a room surrounded by eight empty bottles of water as if he has not moved in hours. On a table in another room, name cards from Halliburton, Oceaneering and others who have offered assistance are scattered across a table spread with papers.
The 12-hour shifts people have been assigned are turning into 14, given handing-over briefings at the start and end of their shifts. Nobody is taking holidays or weekends. Signs have been taped to the walls directing people to coffee. BP is making a point to highlight to staff the availability of a counsellor for anyone needing to talk.
“The stress gets pretty high,’’ says Kent Wells, BP’s senior vice-president for exploration and production. “This is an unprecedented technical challenge.’’
Yet, Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, appears to be taking it all in his stride. He began at 6am on Wednesday in discussions with the US secretaries of energy and the interior, Steven Chu and Ken Salazar, as well as top scientists and engineers on BP’s efforts to cap and contain the leak.
That ended close to noon, when he had a conference call with BP’s board – something he has been doing every week to 10 days to update them on progress. He spent the afternoon in Mississippi, meeting the governor and locals to ensure their claims for lost fishing or tourism were being processed. Then Mr Hayward returned to Houston for a night-time interview with journalists.
“We will only win this if we can win the hearts and minds of the local community,” he said. “It’s a big challenge.’’
Members of the US cabinet have his personal mobile number, he said, and they routinely call.
“Some nights I haven’t slept very well, but some nights I’ve been able to get five or six hours.’’ He is not up worrying, he said, but rather thinking how to “stay ahead’’ of the crisis that began on April 20 when a BP-contracted rig exploded in the Gulf.
Hate mail has come into BP, but so have 40,000 offers of help, including a call from James Cameron, the Avatar and Titanic writer and director, who offered manned submarines. BP has politely declined, given BP’s opportunity to use some from the defence department if need be. But it is appreciative of the support.
Mr Hayward called his counterparts at ExxonMobil, Chevron and other top deepwater producers for any assistance they could provide and they have responded.
“This is a global oil and gas industry problem being addressed by the oil and gas industry,’’ he said. Of the 500 people handling the crisis, he said, about 60 per cent were from BP, with the rest from the industry and government.
“We will be judged by the nature of our response,’’ he said before acknowledging he, in particular, also will be judged. Mr Hayward said he did not feel his job was on the line: ”I don’t, at the moment. That might change.”
Criticisms against BP have grown in recent days, culminating in allegations from a powerful US Congressional investigations panel on Wednesday that a litany of failures led to the catastrophic spill.
The allegations, pulled from 100,000 pages of documents from the companies involved, suggested many warning signs were overlooked. Mr Hayward declined to speak about the allegations, noting an investigation was under way.
Mr Hayward replaced Lord John Browne as chief executive, following a string of problems for BP in the US, including a fatal refinery explosion in Texas, corrosion and leaking pipes in Alaska and a propane scandal.
Lord Browne offered his support to Mr Hayward when his successors’ own crisis struck: “He sent me a text message of support,’’ Mr Hayward said.
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Mr Hayward said he has improved safety at the company in the years since he took over and, because of that, BP is in a position to deal with the current crisis and pull through.
“Apollo 13 did not stop the space programme. The Air France airplane that fell out of the sky off of Brazil did not stop the aviation industry,’’ he said.
“We have tried to be very aggressive on all fronts,’’ he said.
He came to the US just days after the explosion and went back to London for 36 hours to pack a bigger suitcase. He has travelled to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama – the states that might be affected by the spill – as well as Washington for meetings with the Obama administration.
“I’ve been to some places I probably didn’t expect to get to,’’ he said. And he has steered clear of reading newspapers and watching television. “I don’t want my judgment clouded by what is being said about me or BP.”
On Thursday, he is spending the day in Louisiana, but says he makes his plans day by day. ”I’m not sure where I am after that.”
“I’ve actually got some good friends through this,’’ he said, noting he had been dealing with people he would not ordinarily. ”We are fighting a battle.”
* Audio Energy weekly – Oil: spill, prices and demand
* FT commodities correspondent Javier Blas joins Ed in the studio this week to talk about the start of US enquiries into the BP oil spill, the outlook for oil prices and oil demand and new energy legislation coming from the states. They also turn their attention to the Persian Gulf – in particular Iranian exports of crude oil and imports of gasoline. Produced by LJ Filotrani
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