Trying to decide who is more disappointing: Tony Hayward or the audience at his talk

Reflections on a speech given by Tony Hayward on 11 November 2010

This evening I saw Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, give a talk about the lessons learned from the Gulf of Mexico/Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I naïvely assumed that most of the audience would be there to hear what BP has learned and could share about how environmental and human impacts of activities like oil drilling can be mitigated.

So what really happened and why did I come out seething mad and bitterly disappointed? 

Because two of the three ‘lessons’ were on how to deal with “crisis communication” and “political risk”: he told us about BP’s own reputational concerns but dismissed the environment and spent very little time on any lessons relevant to conservation. (The other lesson was “risk management” but even that emphasized business rather than environmental risks.

Because despite expressing regret for the lives lost in the explosion, he said “we can deal with the environment: we can restore it”. Really? I guess it’s true: corporations like his think money and technology can solve anything.

Because he belittled the environmental and livelihood impacts of the spill by calling the event “an almighty corporate crisis for BP” and saying “our efforts [to stop the leakage, clean up the oil, deal with media, deal with gov, etc] have done little to soften the impact…for BP”. 

But also….

Because the questions the students asked were extremely disappointing. Nearly all of them demonstrated the audience’s interest in profits, business success (in the face of environmental and human casualty) and Tony Hayward himself.

Because the only questions relating to the environment were poorly articulated. 

Because no one dissented and everyone laughed and clapped and indulged him in what is clearly a reputation and marketing tour for himself and BP.

Some of the questions (summarized): 

Q: Why didn’t BP have insurance against a risk like this?
A: Too expensive, BP has been self insured for 20 years.

Q: How do you recover from the personal attacks on you and what do you plan to do next?
A: What happened was terrible but it happened, I’m at peace with it, and now I’m going to take 6 months off and go sailing in the Caribbean and climb Kilimanjaro.

Q: Can you tell us more about the sale of assets BP has promised to pay for the spill? [in reference to Hayward’s public promise to sell off $30 billion in assets to cover spill costs and the fact that BP is planning to sell some of its Algerian assets to TNK-BP, a company half owned by BP itself. More on this on Reuters, a blog and another blog.]
A: No.
Audience: applause and chuckling.

The only thing the Q&A session inspired in me was disgust and disappointment with the audience in the room. They welcomed Tony Hayward with laughter, occasional applause and easy questions. No one challenged his sweeping dismissals of the environmental impacts, all they did was encourage and implicitly support the assumption that all that matters is profit and company reputation. Clearly higher education is still a long way from generating environmental awareness, caring or compassion.

Finally, I was disappointed by the management of the event itself. Ushering Tony Hayward out after a brief 20 minutes of questions, 10 minutes before the scheduled end of the event, was a display of cowardice and revealed a disinterest in the “frank discussion” the moderator had claimed to encourage at the start of the event. I was also disappointed to hear that the person who asked about the sale of assets was swiftly approached by the organizers after the event, apparently to chastise her for this overly challenging question. Sure, the organizers want to maintain a reputation as a safe place for controversial speakers to air their views, but they are verging on stifling challenging questions altogether.

(Note: I tried to ask a question but didn’t get the chance. Our question would have been: “Oil, gas, mining and extractive industries are environmentally speaking high impact activities. Who has the responsbility to oversee, regulate and police corporations’ environmentally harmful activities and who who can do this most effectively: governments, NGOs, the company or another?”) 

Conclusion: I am most disappointed in the audience (current and former Cambridge students who are members of the Cambridge Union Society) because I expected so much more from them.
As for Tony Hayward, he proved that my naïve optimism that he might show genuine interest in improved environmental risk management was merely a temporary lapse in realism. He doesn’t care and he hasn’t learned.

But I’m also angry that people seem to care so much about profit and so little about nature. And I’m concerned about what we’re up against in this world as conservationists – it feels insurmountable after what I witnessed tonight.

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2 Responses

  1. You write well, and with a clear sense of concern. You observed very discouraging behaviour. You should find a way to broaden and strengthen your own influence so you can make the kind of positive impact you found so lacking in the Tony Hayward event.

  2. Hi Julie! I’m impressed with the upkeep of the blog! They’re not easy to do and I think it’s great you’re posting regularly. I fell off that wagon long ago…

    Judging from BP’s and Hayward’s behavior while the spill was going on, I’m not terribly surprised by what you heard at his talk. Still, it is disappointing, and even shocking to think that people who are short-sighted enough to look at a colossal environmental disaster (this is, objectively, what it was and I think even Hayward acknowledges that) and lament primarily the financial/public relations/political losses associated with it actually live and breathe among the rest of us. But it’s kind of a typical corporate attitude, isn’t it? In the quest for the most dollars (or pounds, or Euros, etc.), something like ripping a gaping hole in an ocean floor and unleashing a torrent of toxic liquid into an already fragile environment is considered collateral damage. The fact that significant pollution to the world that we all share and will pass on to future generations was perpetrated seems to be completely off the radar. Them fish and them birds ain’t no BP customers, so screw ‘em! (I’m sure this is a fairly good approximation of how Hayward talks, with a redneck drawl).

    But I think you’re right, it’s the Cambridge kids who are most disappointing with their lame-o softball questions. Nobody gets publicly asked the hardball questions. I think Obama also has something to answer for here. Have you read the Rolling Stone article on him and the spill? If not, it’s a good one: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/111965

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