The outgoing BP chief executive Tony Hayward yesterday described the fatal Deepwater Horizon disaster that unleashed the biggest oil slick in history as personally "devastating" because of his commitment to safety as the company's number one priority.
In his first public appearance in the UK since the explosion that killed 11 people in the Gulf of Mexico in April, Mr Hayward faced a grilling from the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee over the implications of the disaster for offshore drilling in the North Sea.
Mr Hayward – who took over from his predecessor, Lord Browne, in 2007 amid concerns about the group's safety record – said the company has invested £9bn in safety during his tenure. "This particular incident is so devastating to me personally because we have made an enormous amount of progress in that three-year period," he said. Mr Hayward also strongly rebutted allegations that cost-cutting measures were behind the safety failures. Safety is the first call on every dollar BP invests," he said. "Before we invest in anything, we invest in safety." The hearing came a day after revelations that a Department of Climate Change (Decc) inspection found that workers on some of BP's North Sea platforms had not received the necessary training, and that the majority of sites had not conducted proper oil spill exercises. Although Decc has confirmed that none of the oversights constitutes a compromise of the "overall integrity" of the installations, the exposure came as an embarrassment to BP.
Questioned by the committee yesterday, Mr Hayward stressed that the Decc inspections had not revealed "any fundamental weakness" in the company's North Sea operations.
"We have a very strong track record in the North Sea," he said, pointing out that the company's spills in the region were down by a fifth. "It is better than the industry average [and] we have seen major improvements in the course of the last two years," he said.
Mr Hayward also told the committee that the technical issues behind the Gulf of Mexico spill were industry-wide practices. And he strongly refuted suggestions that the disaster could be linked to the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 people.
"It has been easy for some parties to suggest that this is a problem with BP but I emphatically do not believe that is the case," Mr Hayward said. "It is very dangerous to join up dots that may not be appropriate to join up."
Mr Hayward will step down from the chief executive role at the end of this month, making way for Bob Dudley, the former head of the group's TNK-BP joint venture. Mr Dudley, an American, took over the US clean-up efforts after intense criticism of Mr Hayward over his response to the disaster. A series of public relations gaffes, including saying that he "wanted his life back" and taking a day off to go sailing, saw Mr Hayward personally vilified in the US. He was also pilloried for a performance before a highly critical US Congressional committee in June that critics described as "stonewalling" and "evasive". Mark Bly, BP's head of safety, also appeared at the Commons Energy and Climate Change committee yesterday. Mr Bly said that less than 10 of the company's North Sea staff had missed out on training, which was mostly only a computer-based "refresher" course.
BP's internal investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion, led by Mr Bly, concluded last week that responsibility for the incident was shared between BP itself, rig owner Transocean and the cement contractor Halliburton.
The official US government investigation, being conducted jointly by the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, is due to report by the end of January at the latest.