Incoming BP chief promises help for Gulf region ‘for years’


New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — Incoming BP CEO Bob Dudley sought to reassure jittery Gulf of Mexico residents Friday that the massive British corporation will not abandon them once the ruptured well responsible for the oil disaster has been permanently sealed.

Dudley, currently the company’s managing director, stressed during a visit to Mississippi that BP has made a “long-term commitment” to the region. “We’ll be here for years,” he said.

The spill has been a “catastrophe” and a “real wake-up call for change,” he told reporters. We have to “treat it as an opportunity to change for the better.”

Shortly before Dudley made his remarks, BP announced that it is setting up a $100 million charitable fund to support unemployed oil rig workers experiencing economic hardship due to the deepwater drilling moratorium imposed by the Obama administration.

The establishment of the Rig Worker Assistance Fund “fulfills the commitment” BP made on June 16 to provide $100 million in assistance “as a gesture of good will for the people of the Gulf region,” according to a company statement.

The company also announced that James Lee Witt, director of Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration, will be advising Dudley on BP’s disaster response efforts.

“I look forward to drawing on James Lee’s expertise,” Dudley said in a written statement. His firm “will provide us with the experienced hands who are familiar with the Gulf Coast and can reach into impacted communities to help BP deliver its recovery commitments in a smooth and effective fashion.”

Witt, who was appointed in June to conduct an independent review, joined Dudley in Mississippi.

“It’s really critical that we get this right,” Witt said. “I’ve seen the anguish and the pain that people have suffered after disaster events.” But he added he also has “seen communities come back stronger and better” than before.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the effort to seal the well. Dudley said Friday he is “hopeful” the company will complete its “static kill” of the ruptured well by Tuesday. A static kill consists of pumping mud and cement into a well from the top.

BP is hoping to permanently seal the well from the bottom through the completion of a relief well by the end of August, Dudley said. The company will “do everything to absolutely kill this well,” he stressed.

Dudley’s assessment of the timetable for the static kill was echoed Friday by Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the man overseeing Washington’s response to the oil spill. Allen told reporters that the procedure — initially slated for Monday — had been delayed by the need to remove storm-related debris near the well.

Allen, like Dudley, sought to address the fears of Gulf residents worried that a successful capping of the well would lead to the end of federal assistance in the battered region.

“We are here to see this thing through to the finish,” he said. “We should not be writing any obituary” for the oil disaster yet. “We need to stay engaged” until the Gulf has been sufficiently cleaned up.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said Thursday after meeting with Allen that he wants “to be sure there are enough assets … to (continue to) fight this oil.”

Nungesser also said he wants to ensure that in “any decision to downsize, which we know will happen someday, we will be included with that.”

Residents of South Florida, the Florida Keys and the East Coast will be spared much of the fallout from the spill, according an analysis released Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The analysis stated that residents in those areas are “not likely to experience any effects from the remaining oil on the surface of the Gulf as the oil continues to degrade and is hundreds of miles away from the loop current.”

The analysis assumed that the ruptured BP well in the Gulf of Mexico will remain capped.

“The coast remains clear,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a news release. “With the flow stopped and the loop current a considerable distance away, the light sheen remaining on the Gulf’s surface will continue to biodegrade and disperse, but will not travel far.”

In a positive note for fishermen, Louisiana wildlife officials late Thursday announced that portions of state waters east of the Mississippi River in four parishes had been reopened to commercial fishing for fish and shrimp.

They said the move followed extensive tests by the Food and Drug Administration that determined the fish were safe for consumption.

“Through close coordination with our state and federal partners, we are confident all appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that seafood harvested from the waters being opened today is safe and that Gulf seafood lovers everywhere can be confident eating and enjoying the fish and shrimp that will be coming out of this area,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said Friday in a written statement.

One thing not going away soon, however, is the threat of litigation against BP.

A panel of federal judges met in Boise, Idaho, Thursday to consider arguments on where litigation over the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil gusher should be consolidated. The Deepwater Horizon rig, off the coast of Louisiana, triggered the oil disaster when it exploded April 20, killing 11 people, and sank two days later.

New Orleans and Houston, Texas, appear to be the favorites for the lawsuit filing sites because of their proximity to oil company offices and litigants surrounding the disaster.

The man on the receiving end of much of the public anger over the disaster — outgoing BP chief Tony Hayward — said in an interview published Friday that he has become “a villain for doing the right thing.”

“But I understand that people find it easier to vilify an individual more than a company,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I didn’t want to leave BP, because I love the company. … (But) because I love the company, I must leave BP.”

Hayward will be replaced by Dudley on October 1.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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