Image: Bob Dudley
Cheryl Gerber  /  AP
BP managing director Bob Dudley has been put front and center of spill operations, including seeing how Dr. Robert MacLean, senior veterinarian of the Audubon Nature Institute, and Michele Kelley, the institute's standing coordinator, are handling affected sea turtles.
updated 6/28/2010 5:41:15 PM ET 2010-06-28T21:41:15

He has been cast in the role of fixer, sent in to clean up after BP's gaffe-prone chief executive and oversee efforts to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher. But Robert Dudley is really more of a diplomat.

In his first week running the spill response for BP, Dudley shuttled between the Gulf and Washington, defended BP engineers after a setback, toured a center where oil-covered turtles are treated and enlisted the help of a politically connected relief expert.

"Until we close the well off," he acknowledged at one point, "I think there's a period here where it's going to be very difficult to restore BP's reputation." Dudley added he was confident the well would be plugged by the end of August.

He picked his words carefully and stressed that the understands the public outrage toward the company. He mentioned growing up in Mississippi and spending summers on the Gulf. It was vintage Dudley, according to acquaintances: steady and methodical.

"He's not real emotional," says Don Stacy, who was chairman of Amoco's Russian operations and Dudley's boss in the 1990s. "He doesn't frighten people. He stays calm and analyzes problems."

The 54-year-old managing director faces no shortage of problems as he takes command from Tony Hayward, the British CEO who angered Americans by minimizing the spill's environmental impact and expressing his exasperation by saying, "I'd like my life back."

Dudley's task is not just logistical — capping the well and directing the cleanup. He must repair the less tangible damage, too, soothing angry people along the Gulf and at least starting to salvage BP's reputation.

"His mission is restoring BP's image in the Americas," says Mark Gilman, an analyst for The Benchmark Co. who has known Dudley since the 1990s. "This is almost form over substance. BP needs to start looking good."

Dudley got a quick idea of just how difficult that will be. On his first day on the job, an undersea robot bumped the cap being used to contain the gusher, forcing BP engineers to remove the cap and then scramble to reattach it.

At a briefing with reporters the next day in Washington, Dudley said rig workers did "exactly the right thing" and learned from the incident. Dudley was in Washington to meet Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other top administration officials to discuss the rate of oil flowing from the broken well and BP's use of chemicals to break down oil plumes.

Dudley said he expects to split his time between the Gulf, Houston and Washington — a sign that dealing with regulators will be an important part of the job. Already there are calls in Washington to subject BP to extra scrutiny before letting the company drill again in the United States.

Notably, Dudley asked James Lee Witt to review BP's response to the disaster and offer recommendations. Witt is well-known to regulators in Washington and Louisiana — he was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration and worked for the state of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Arjen Boin, a Louisiana State professor who wrote a book on crisis management, says enlisting Witt, a southerner from neighboring Arkansas, was a wise move. But he says BP must do more to win over governors, regulators and local officials in the Gulf states, some of whom have been more strident than the feds in their criticism of the company.

Dudley has experience dealing with combative regulators and difficult partners.

In the 1990s, he ran Amoco's operations in Russia before BP bought the company in 1998. Stacy, the retired Amoco executive, says Dudley was instrumental in persuading Russian investors to let Amoco have an equity stake. The Russians didn't know much about capitalism, and Dudley, he says, "knew how to educate them without lecturing."

Later, at BP, Dudley oversaw exploration and production in Russia, the Caspian region, Angola, Algeria and Egypt. In 2003, BP tapped him to run TNK-BP, a joint venture with a group of Russian billionaires.

The venture was enormously successful, but the Russian partners eventually pushed for more control — and Dudley's removal. Russian government officials raided the venture's offices, denied work permits to dozens of foreign workers and forced Dudley to leave the country in 2008.

"My strong view is that the conflict wasn't aimed at Bob, but rather against the British partner (BP)," says Peter Necarsulmer, CEO of The PBN Co., which BP hired as consultants in Russia. "Bob was the ham in that sandwich."

BP and its partners eventually settled their differences, and the venture still makes money for BP. Back in London, Dudley got a board seat and oversight of BP's operations in Asia and the Americas.

Dudley was supposed to take charge of the spill response only after the well was plugged. But the switch was moved up after two key events in Washington — a June 16 meeting between President Barack Obama and Dudley, Hayward and BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg; and Hayward's disastrous appearance the next day before a congressional panel, where the CEO came across as uninformed and uncooperative.

Dudley hasn't agreed to every interview request — BP denied one for this story — but he has been more accessible and relaxed around reporters than Hayward. Last week, when a scheduled 45 minutes with reporters was up, Dudley kept talking, ignoring aides who were trying to shoo him out the door.

But echoing Hayward, Dudley says it's too early to know what caused the April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered an environmental disaster. He says he hasn't been involved in the search to explain the accident, adding, "I haven't read even our internal investigation."

Dudley staunchly defends BP's actions since the blowout. He says he hopes the world will someday recognize BP's "incredible response" to the spill.

Analysts say if Dudley can manage the well-capping and the cleanup, he could replace Hayward as CEO. BP officials spent Monday swatting down a report out of Russia that Hayward would resign soon.

People who know Dudley say he is flexible when problems arise.

Aleksey Knizhnikov, an energy policy official in Russia for the World Wildlife Fund, says that while he ran TNK-BP Dudley listened to activists and agreed to delay seismic testing and reroute a gas pipeline for environmental reasons.

John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil and author of "Why We Hate the Oil Companies," says he talked to Dudley recently to urge the use of supertankers to capture more of the oil spewing from the broken well. Dudley said BP's engineers would study the idea.

"Bob is well-respected in the industry because he's open to ideas, and that's what BP needs right now," Hofmeister says.

Christine Tiscareno, an oil industry analyst in London for Standard & Poor's who has met Dudley, says his background makes him well-suited for the new job and to replace Hayward as the public face of BP in the United States.

"He is used to working under very, very stressful circumstances," she says, "but more than that, he's an American."

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Video: BP clean-up chief: ‘This spill is going to change the industry’

  1. Transcript of: BP clean-up chief: ‘This spill is going to change the industry’

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: BP has turned to a new man to run the cleanup operation in the gulf. Managing director Bob Dudley spent time there growing up in Mississippi . He's with us from Washington , where he met with the interior secretary today, the head of the EPA . Mr. Dudley , we're duty bound to point out two things as we get under way here. This nation swallows about, give or take, 19 million barrels of oil and petroleum products every day. We understand that it has to come from somewhere. And second, this is the first time in this 66 days of this disaster that the BP boss has appeared live on this broadcast, which is viewed by the largest single daily news audience in the country. So the question is

    this: Can we agree that this happened because BP knows how to get oil a mile down, but not how to stop it? And given that, should you be allowed to drill for it that deep?

    Mr. BOB DUDLEY (BP Managing Director): Good evening, Brian . This is a disaster that -- a very, very low probability of happening to any oil company . It has happened. We need to pull it apart piece by piece by piece, understand what happened, learn from it, disseminate that knowledge around the world and throughout the industry so it never, ever, ever happens again. This is a terrible tragedy . It's a terrible tragedy on people. I saw the pictures of the wildlife in the gulf. This is terrible, and the company's going to put its full might behind the -- providing every resource it can to stop it, clean it up and restore the gulf.

    WILLIAMS: What did the feds want to know from you today, and what did you tell them?

    Mr. DUDLEY: We had a review today of the latest update on the containment that is back on stream. He have about $25,000 contained. We talked about the kinds of things that the oil and the gas industry needs to do in the future to ensure this never, ever happens again. We spoke with administrator Jackson about the long-term impacts of dispersants and the concerns, and making sure that we learn from this event for the future, for everybody in the future; and with Carol Browner , we went over pretty much the full spectrum of issues that we're working on in the gulf.

    WILLIAMS: Is...

    Mr. DUDLEY: We want to keep everybody informed.

    WILLIAMS: Is there anything else you need to warn us about? Anything else that could go wrong?

    Mr. DUDLEY: Well, we're working in this 5,000 feet below the seabed. We've got untold, uncharted territory that we've been through to get to this point in it. We've got relief wells that are getting close to being down. We should be able to shut this off by August, in August. You never know. I have a concern about storms in the gulf. We're going to have to react. We've got a lot of planning in place. Those are the things that I think are unknown variables at this point, but it isn't because of lack of planning and people and manpower by the Coast Guard and by BP working together out of the unified command center in New Orleans .

    WILLIAMS: If this is what happens again, knowing how to get the oil a mile down but not to stop it, do you now look at the next Alaska , the Prudhoe Bay project, in a new light? For viewers who haven't followed it, that will go two miles down and then six to eight miles across into a reservoir of oil. And to get off of regulations on offshore drilling , BP has built an island, attached it to land so it's technically onshore. Do you now step back and say, `Well, should we be doing this?'

    Mr. DUDLEY: Well, in Alaska , that is how you drill mainly offshore because of the ice. So that's not an unusual development plan. But this kind of drilling goes on all over the world , and so we need to learn what's happened on this well in the gulf. There're unknown things about it. We need to understand what equipment failed, what decisions might've been, what could be done differently, and do a real forensic investigation of it. I think this is going to change the industry for -- in -- for good around the world, and we want to be part of understanding what happened and making sure everyone knows so that it doesn't happen again.

    WILLIAMS: I have to ask a question on behalf of the shrimpers and the folks who work the water, many of whom we've come to know well on our many visits down there.

    Mr. DUDLEY: Mm-hmm.

    WILLIAMS: Do you have any fundamental problem -- because they didn't do anything wrong here, of course -- in making them whole? You've got families threatening to leave the area, move. They just can't make it. They can't survive, some of them waiting for payments from BP .

    Mr. DUDLEY: Mm. Well, this is a terrible tragedy . We've been moving as fast as we can. We have 33 claims offices across the gulf. As of yesterday we had written checks for 123 million. We've had to revise how we do businesses. We're now going to start paying one to two months out in time to make sure that the business can be sustained. We want to move as fast as we can. We want to transition with Ken Feinberg , who's the independent claims person. He's giving us a lot of input and advice. We're not slowing down, and if we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of paying a claim and squaring it up later, if that's an issue.

    WILLIAMS: Whole lot of people down in the gulf anxious to talk to you now that you're on the job. Thank you very much for coming on our broadcast. We hope it's the first of many conversations. Bob Dudley , the new boss at BP , on Capitol Hill tonight.


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