BP attempts to clean up its image amid reports of corners cut

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The Independent US

The boss of BP, Tony Hayward, was battling yesterday to quell criticism of the company's handling of the Gulf oil spill, even as its latest image repair campaign drew indignation, and fresh evidence emerged of a pattern of safety shortcuts and slipshod management aboard the rig that exploded.

"We are going to stop the leak; we're going to clean up the oil; we're going to remediate any environmental damage; and we are going to return the Gulf coast to the position it was in prior to this event," he said on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show. "That's an absolute commitment."

Mr Hayward batted off any notion that he might be forced to resign in the wake of the calamity. But he faces a precipitous public relations hill in the United States, where he has been assailed from all quarters, including from the White House, for approving a campaign of TV, radio and print advertising that began last week and for some oddly out-of-tune public comments.

Some encouragement was being drawn from data at the spill site suggesting that the latest containment dome, dropped on to the gushing well last week, was by last night collecting roughly 10,500 barrels a day. That is just over half the maximum estimates of what may be escaping from the well.

Mr Hayward said a second system to siphon off oil is expected to be ready by the end of this week. "When those two are in place, we would very much hope to be containing the vast majority of the oil," he said.

So it was good news for BP, but any attempt to express satisfaction was discouraged by federal officials. "We're making the right progress," Admiral Thad Allen, the Coast Guard Incident Commander, noted before adding tersely: "I don't think anybody should be pleased as long as there's oil in the water."

He indicated that it will be after the summer before the leak is completely tamed by relief wells. "This will be well into the fall," he said.

An exposé in The New York Times seemed to give the lie to comments from President Barack Obama himself just weeks before the 20 April explosion – that deep-sea drilling was safe. Citing company documents, witness testimony at hearings with rig survivors, and results from a preliminary BP inquiry, the piece laid bare ways in which exceptions to safety regulations were granted, red flags ignored and shortcuts taken.

It is a picture that highlights shortcomings not just on the part of BP but also of the government – which has already vowed an overhaul of the Mineral Management Services that has the dual and conflicting duties of fostering exploration and supervising it.

But the harshest scrutiny falls on BP. Of the 126 people on the Deep-water Horizon rig at the time of the blast, only eight were direct BP employees, the Times said, recalling previous reports of a squabble between a "company man" and an official with Transocean, the owner of the rig, over whether it was safe to proceed with operations hours before disaster struck.

"I don't have a feeling that there is somebody who has a handle on the co-ordination of all the activities on this vessel, going from routine to crisis," Captain Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard said of the muddled chain of command at one of the recent hearings. "BP is in charge of certain things; Transocean is in charge of certain things."

Also coming into focus are the multiple occasions when BP secured exceptions to regulations – even its own regulations in at least one case – so as to be able to push on with operations even when problems were evident. Behind schedule, the company had an overwhelming financial incentive to move forward with completing the well and releasing the Transocean rig, which cost $500,000 (£346,000) a day to lease.

Thus, BP allowed the use of a less secure kind of well casing, it would now appear, even though to do so violated its own internal guidelines.

It had evidence of leaking seals in the blowout preventer, which fatally failed to do its job, yet won permission from regulators to test the machine at pressures that were lower than usual. It went forward with completing the well, even though a pipe had got stuck inside it.