Oil Slick

“Hello. This is another report from the front line,” says BP chief executive Tony Hayward, sounding more like a British war correspondent on assignment. “I’m in Venice, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.”

Behind him a boat sits docked. Workmen come and go. In another scene they are lined up one after another, tossing sand bags down the line and then into a waiting boat.

Hayward wears no tie, the top of his Oxford is unbuttoned. Sometimes, his sleeves are rolled up as if he’s about to get to work. A hardhat with BP’s green and yellow Helios logo sits atop his head. 

He’s a man of action standing in front of the camera. And a wealthy one at that, having made some $6 million in compensation last year, a 41 percent raise despite a 45 percent drop in company revenues. In Mississippi, he looks like a throwback of sorts to the days of the old British Empire, Charles Marlow awaiting his steamship.

“I’m sure you’ve been following this very actively, many of you, on the national and international media,” he says, stumbling a bit. “But I wanted to give you a personal update on how things are.”

The video is on BP’s website, found by way of a Twitter post written by one of the many media consultants frantically working to protect the company’s image in the midst of one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history. A viewer could be forgiven for feeling somewhat comforted by Hayward’s personal update and his rolled-up sleeves. Things are in control.

“As you will have seen,” he continues, referring presumably to the national and international media, “ we haven’t yet managed to stop the leak. But we have a lot of activity ongoing in that regard.”

Thousands of barrels of oil are gushing into the Gulf, preventing migrating birds from a much-needed pit stop and threatening sea turtles just as they head to the shore to lay their eggs. Now, cut to an overhead shot of an oil rig with seven boats spread around it.

“On the surface, we continue to fight the battle with an armada of ships and planes,” he says. “We’ve been very successful with the application of dispersant. And we’ve been very successful with some new technology, which has allowed us to deploy dispersant on the sea bed, which appears to be having a significant impact.”

Seagulls squawk in the background. Elsewhere online, reports surface that Corexit 9500, BP’s dispersant of choice, is several times as toxic as the crude itself. The PR firms do not retweet these reports.

“And on the shore, we have a truly enormous operation going.” Cut to average people answering phones and conferring over paperwork. “We now have 10,000 volunteers on the payroll,” he says. A beautiful incongruity.

“We have close to 4,000 fishing vessels signed up to deploy buoy and to take near-shore skimming activity,” he continues. BP has also gotten fishermen to sign away their right to sue in exchange for $5,000. The surrounding environment may not recover for years. When the media reports this, a U.S. District Court judge intervenes and BP agrees to alter future waivers and cancel those already signed.

“And I am absolutely determined,” he says as the camera cuts back to him, hands on hips, standing tall, with eyes occasionally darting to cue cards out of the frame, “that we will continue to fight this war on three fronts: in the sub-sea, on the surface, and we will defend the beaches.”

The battlefield is not just the sub-sea and the sea, the beaches and the marshes.

“And you should all be in no doubt that we will win,” the man in front of the camera says. “What we are trying to do is win as quickly as we can.”