BP disaster recovery chief fends off the YouTube masses

Bob Dudley, CEO of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, took live questions from a public audience today during a special broadcast hosted by Google, YouTube and the PBS NewsHour. This is the first time any senior BP executive has taken questions from a popular audience in the 71 days since the start of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The portal for the interview, Google’s CitizenTube, allowed users to submit questions via Google Moderator so that they could be voted up or down by subsequent viewers. In all, 520 questions were submitted — some over video — by 931 people throughout the U.S., and 11,281 votes were cast to crowd-source the best selections.

Interviewed by PBS’s Ray Suarez, Dudley came across even-handed and contrite — almost sympathetic. The organization he heads up was created following BP’s meeting with President Barack Obama, when it became clear that the cleanup and response efforts were too complex and needed their own dedicated resources, Dudley said.

That means he is in charge of everything from determining how the disaster occurred in the first place — a mysterious compound failure involving almost every aspect of the failed rig — to capping the leak, to responding to the environmental, health and socioeconomic damage that has occurred in the region.

While a lot of his answers simply reiterated the company’s public position, there were several highlights providing new information, and even influencing how BP will proceed from this point:

- Dudley says he has actually not seen the popular coffee spill parody of the BP disaster that has earned 8.5 million page views on YouTube. This is somewhat hard to believe. It’s even harder to believe Dudley’s response that everyone involved already feels bad about what happened, and that this kind of criticism isn’t necessarily productive. Based on some of the vitriol I’ve seen around the web, the now famous parody is hardly anything.

- Hurricane Alex has made the cleanup efforts far more complicated, preventing surface skimming, stalling the use of dispersant chemicals, and making it too dangerous for crews to work around the clock. Dudley predicts that its strategy will start to remove upwards of 43,000 barrels of oil — instead of the current 23,000 barrels — from the water starting on July 8, when waters are predicted to calm.

- BP has been making a major push to employ local people in its relief and restoration initiatives. “It’s our objective and policy to hire as many local people as we can,” Dudley says, adding that the company had discouraged workers from coming from other parts of the country and has taken measures to prevent the use of boats from outside the region. He says BP is aware that many people have lost their jobs as a consequence of the spill, and it will do whatever it can to provide new jobs in reparation.

- BP has been conducting deep-water drilling operations extending as deep as 20,000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico for more than 20 years, and this is the first time it has had a major problem. So when it comes to suspending deep-water rigs, Dudley doesn’t think this is a practical solution, especially if BP is to remain a viable, and growing corporation. That said, BP is prepared to sell off some of its other assets around the world to meet its financial commitments resulting from the spill, he says.

- The chemical dispersant being used to degrade the oil in the water, called Corexit, has been certified by the EPA to be non-toxic. But it has never been used in such high volumes and concentrations before. The ramifications to people’s health and wildlife are largely unknown and unpredictable. Dudley said nothing to allay these fears, offering only that BP would spend as much time and money as it takes to repair any long-term effects from its use. Using the Exxon Valdez spill as an example — albeit a more modestly-sized one — these health claims are still popping up 21 years after the fact.

- According to Dudley, journalists have not been turned away from speaking to cleanup workers and company officials. He says he has seen interviews where people have declined to speak, claiming that the company has issued a gag order, but that they are unclear on the media policy. There has been no action taken to silence people, whatsoever, he says. In fact, the confusion has prompted the company to distribute cards to everyone in the Gulf explaining the company’s media policy so that they feel comfortable speaking to reporters.

- There is a demand for better web-based communications between BP and the public. Several people submitted questions complaining about the vagueness of BP’s blog and news updates and the low resolution and opaque-nature of its video feed from the site of the spill. Dudley seemed to take these concerns to heart, pledging to take another look at these resources to see if they can be improved.

“We have had a camera there looking at the spill from the very beginning,” he said. “I’m sure there are some very strange things happening on screen from time to time that people can’t follow, but we’re working on putting bubbled captions on there explaining what people are seeing.”

He added that engineers may be recruited to explain to people exactly what is going on on the video feed at any given time.

It’s interesting how much the internet and its diverse tools have impacted how a company like BP chooses to respond to and communicate with the public. These sorts of things probably wouldn’t have been a primary concern for people even two to three years ago, but now there’s little excuse for a company of BP’s size not to be using these outlets and channels to its advantage.

Dudley’s decision to submit to a candid interview via some of the most popular outlets on the web is a good start, but it’s clear that the company has a long way to go before critics, and even casual observers stop pounding on its doors.