FuelFix exclusive: BP's Dudley opens up about safety, criminal liability and social media

Robert Dudley officially starts as CEO of oil major BP on Friday, but he’s already putting his stamp on the company with plans for a major reorganization announced this week.

He took a few minutes to talk to FuelFix’s Tom Fowler this morning. Here are the highlights.

On the Bly report:

The purpose of that report was to be a very a dispassionate investigation report. It did not address anything such as culture in the company.

On the new safety organization — is it an admission of a weak safety culture?

We don’t think so. But just looking at the gravity of what happened, we must do everything we can to ensure that it never happens again. We did this by strengthening the function, giving it a seat higher up in the company, having a leadership team that embraces working on this and actually wants to see we have these double checks and balances. I wouldn’t describe it as an admission of anything.

On how the reorganization will affect Houston:

Houston is the energy capital of the world, so obviously BP will have great presence there.  [The new structure of] exploration, development and production — those three executives and the head safety executive — will be here in London. But I don’t see it having any impact on BP’s presence in Houston.

On oil spill settlement talks with the Department of Justice:

I think the Justice Department is only beginning their investigational work, which started at the time of the final killing of the well. We’re not in any discussions with them around settlement yet. We don’t believe we have been grossly negligent in anything we’ve seen in any of the investigations.

On restoring the company’s image:

I think it starts with meeting our commitments on the Gulf Coast. We’ve got to follow through, and we will, until everything is cleaned up and the restoration occurs. While we haven’t done that perfectly we have very, very rapidly been funding claims and responding in a way that I hope in time people will realize there was an extraordinary corporate response to this.

The second thing is learning from the incident itself. That includes both what happened offshore, the accident itself, looking at new ways to have to manage contractors and the safety of equipment, and secondly the spill response. Then sharing that in great detail with U.S. government, the regulators and the rest of the industry. I think that is the minimum for being able to restore trust in the U.S.

On the financial future of the company:

We set aside a very large sum for our liability off to the side. We calculated that at the time when the well was still flowing, but since then we no longer have this infinite accident.

We’ve been divesting assets around the world and will through next year. Our target is $25 to $30 billion dollars of assets, so I think that should financially right the ship. And then we’ve suspended the dividend. So we have a chance to look at BP differently as a business, and reset it differently and maybe some different combination of growth and dividend yet to be decided, of course.

On the role of social media in the Gulf oil spill:

For me it’s been fascinating to watch this. There was this very early response that did seem to be based on not very substantive or real information — which no one really had — this rush to judgment that was very uncomfortable.

Again, this has been a very terrible accident and we know it has been and the impact it’s had on very many people. But I got distinctly uncomfortable when I saw experts and drawings and graphics of oil that would project itself around Florida to Key West to Bermuda to England. The clear over-reaction that would cause, without a whole lot of accountability, was an interesting thing to observe.

It didn’t change anything we did. I do think it’s important in society for the media and social media to have the freedom, but also have some wisdom and judgment about the kind of things that are said.

On any lingering misperceptions about the spill that are out there:

We’ve been very cooperative on the subject of dispersants. My sense is the spectrum of communication out there on this has created such polarized views. But in terms of myths, let’s be sure we’re all dealing with real hard science on these things. There’s some risks of damaging the perception of the Gulf of Mexico when it comes to the seafood or the tourism that’s been very unfair to the states that have been effected by the spill.