LONDON (AFP) – British energy giant BP is hoping new chief executive Tony Hayward will herald a brighter future after a disastrous week which saw his predecessor dramatically resign after lying in court.
Widely-respected business heavyweight John Browne, who transformed BP into the world’s third-largest energy group, quit as chief executive last Tuesday after revelations that he lied to a High Court judge over how he had met his gay partner of four years.
Hayward, 50, was thrust into the limelight three months before he was due to take the top job, where he will face key decisions about the operational and safety problems that have plagued BP in recent years.
“The challenge for Mr Hayward is how to deliver growth at a time when BP’s production is set to be broadly flat, while costs are rising,” the Financial Times said in an editorial.
“He has said repeatedly that his priority is to ensure safe and reliable operations, so BP is not hit by any more disasters like the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005, which killed 15 people,” the business daily added.
Days after Browne’s shock resignation, a US lawyer said he still wanted to question him over BP’s safety record in the United States.
Brent Coon, an American lawyer representing BP workers injured in Texas blast, said it was too early to tell if Hayward would settle hundreds of legal suits related to the explosion.
A BP spokesman said that Hayward — formerly head of exploration and production — had been “de facto” chief executive since mid-April and has been shadowing Browne closely for the past four months.
“Tony has been head of the big powerhouse in BP, which is our exploration and production business, and he has been running that for a number of years and has been on the board for a number of years,” the spokesman said.
“He knows exactly what’s going on, what the group strategy is, what the issues are that need to be addressed, and is in an excellent position to take over the reins straight away.”
Browne’s largely successful 12-year reign at BP witnessed a five-fold increase in the company’s market capitalisation to 104.6 billion pounds, while recent profits gushed on the back of record high crude oil prices.
But towards the end of his leadership, he faced the fallout from the devastating Texas City blast, which raised doubts about safety at all the group’s US facilities.
The horrific disaster, the worst US industrial accident since 1990, was caused by “safety deficiencies,” a US government probe concluded earlier this year.
Last year, meanwhile, BP was forced into a partial shutdown of its 400,000-barrel per day Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska following a leak in poorly maintained pipelines.
The leak damaged the clean, environmentally conscious image that the group had cultivated for several years, and caused crude oil prices to spike higher.
Separately, BP is also facing probes into its trading of gasoline and propane in the United States.
Meanwhile, Hayward’s previous role in exploration and production has raised questions because BP is currently struggling to reverse a slide in its energy output.
Recently it reported the seventh successive fall in quarterly output, alongside a 17-percent drop in first-quarter net earnings, despite strong oil prices.
Browne was due to be replaced by Hayward on August 1 — but following recent developments his appointment became immediate.
Oilman Browne, 59, resigned after a British newspaper group won a legal battle to publish details of his relationship with another man.
In his resignation statement, Browne revealed that in initial court statements, he had lied about how he met Canadian Jeff Chevalier, his former partner. He had also retracted and corrected the mistake.
According to British newspaper reports, Browne had met Chevalier on a gay escorting website — but he initially claimed that they had met in a leafy London park.
British media have also reported that Browne may now face a charge of perjury, and possibly jail, for lying.
Britain’s BP is the third largest energy company in terms of stock market capitalisation, behind number one and US behemoth Exxon Mobil, and Anglo-Dutch peer Royal Dutch Shell.