Tony Hayward

(Tim Bower for The Boston Globe)
By Dante Ramos
Globe Staff / June 13, 2010

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WINSTON CHURCHILL he isn’t. When Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, kvetched about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he sounded as if he were tending to a mere annoyance. “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do,’’ he said on the “Today’’ show two weeks ago. “You know, I’d like my life back.’’ The sentiment is familiar enough: It’s the kind of frustration many people feel during a rough patch in the office, or after the basement takes on water. Yet the banality of Hayward’s complaint sounds jarring, because the problem confronting him is so extraordinary.

If this disaster weren’t actually occurring, it would be almost inconceivable. In the weeks since 11 people died in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the oil spewing out of BP’s well has killed pelicans, befouled fragile marshes, and devastated the seafood and tourism industries along the coast. As hurricane season wears on, the apocalyptic possibilities multiply — what’s Katrina times Exxon Valdez?

In moments of crisis, a just-the-facts mindset often helps. Hayward, 53, is a scientist. He has a PhD in geology from the University of Edinburgh and came to BP as a rig geologist in the North Sea. After he took the top job in 2007, admirers credited him with promoting safety and reducing injuries. But Hayward initially pooh-poohed the importance of the Deepwater Horizon spill. While he later promised to make everything right, his not-smooth-enough PR offensive has only underscored how the epic scale of this disaster dwarfs his company’s ability to stop it.

Though catastrophe brings out the best in some leaders, most prove merely human, as Gulf Coast residents well know. After Katrina, they witnessed the failings of “Brownie,’’ the preening FEMA chief, and Ray Nagin, the erratic New Orleans mayor. If not for that disaster, both men might have carried on unmemorably.

On paper, Hayward’s prospects for success would seem much greater; beyond his own expertise, he also has BP’s vast resources behind him. But while Hayward and his company know how to get oil from hard-to-reach places, they failed to imagine a gusher nearly a mile underwater.

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