David Usborne: More concerned about cash than the planet

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The Independent Online

Do you recall how in the first days of this calamity BP won high marks for its seemingly spin-free public response? It admitted fault and pledged to fix things. Then the money men got the upper hand – as they do – and the company got shifty. It has lost everyone's trust now.

That BP is now accused of underplaying the awfulness of what is happening in the Gulf is the fault mostly of its CEO, Tony Hayward, who recently said the environmental impact would end up being "very modest". The American public were less than impressed.

BP has a duty to investors to protect market value. But Americans have got wind of BP's game: that it is more concerned about cash, stock value, possible fines and the jobs of top people than about our planet.

Ten days ago I was at BP's Houston HQ to interview Mr Hayward at a crucial juncture – the effort to plug the well with the "top-kill". Mr Hayward changed his mind and we didn't see him. But we did see BP's PR machine.

Just before noon on 27 May, I met managing director Bob Dudley and Hayward spokesman, Andrew Gowers. They told me that the top-kill was moving forward. "The top kill operation continues," Dudley told me. "The fluid right now is going in two directions; some out the top and some down into the well and we want to reduce the amount that is going out the top and then we will continue to inject the heavy fluids down into the well..." Please note the "right now" bit.

Dudley expounded on how both Hayward and Stephen Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, were in the control room in the same building monitoring progress of the top kill.

"They are both back in there now tracking this minute by minute in the control room," he said. Before leaving, he and Gowers described screens in the control room showing the competing pressures of the mud pushing down the oil rising up.

I was left with the impression that oil was being pumped. I did not question it. Neither, apparently, did Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard who briefed on TV in the morning and the afternoon that the top-kill was going forward. Most importantly, the markets swallowed it. In New York, BP shares rose 6.25 per cent. In London, BP was up 5.9 per cent on the day.

Only later – when the markets had closed – did we learn that all pumping of mud into the well had ceased the night before. None occurred during the day on Thursday. It only resumed after a gap of approximately 16 hours, according to reports – Gowers refused to provided a timeline of the events when asked – on Thursday evening.

I challenged Gowers by text message about the impression given that pumping was going on. "We cannot offer blow by blow commentary on something as difficult and delicate and market sensitive as this," was his response. There it is – market sensitive.