ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — The man who recently became the top BP PLC official assigned to the Unified Area Command tried to assure local leaders in Baldwin County on today that the company is sticking around for the long haul.
Mike Utsler this month also became chief operating officer of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, a long-term operation designed to oversee the environmental and economic recovery.
Utsler told reporters this afternoon that he got a chance to watch beach cleanup crews in action and get input from the mayors of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
“The big focus is stay the course … continue to be here,” he said. “Not only will we be here during the cleanup, we will be here during the restoration.”
Asked how long he anticipated the company having a large presence along the Gulf Coast, Utsler said, “As long as it takes.”
That sentiment was music to the ears of Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who has been an outspoken critic of BP’s handling of the oil gusher caused by an accident at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
“He seemed like a sincere individual,” he said. “He seemed passionate about his desire to help us.”
Kennon said hopes Utsler’s words are backed up by actions.
“I’ve been so disappointed in the claims process, I don’t know if I can believe anyone on the BP side that they’re committed,” he said. “I hope they are. Time will tell.”
Utsler took over Aug. 6 for Doug Suttles, who had led BP’s overall response to the spill before returning to his role as chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production in Houston.
Before taking his current position, Utsler was the company’s commander in the Houma incident command post. Prior to that, the 33-year oil industry veteran served as vice president at BP.
Speaking against a backdrop of oil cleanup workers underneath the Perdido Pass bridge on a blustery day, Utsler told reporters that his meetings with local officials went well. He said authorities at the state and local levels will guide decisions about where to remove oil boom and where to leave it.
“We will keep boom in place where it’s needed to protect sensitive areas,” he said.
Utsler also said crews are working to catch tarballs before they wash up on shore.
Utsler said he hopes that the Gulf Coast, at least from a tourism standpoint, is back to normal by next year.
Whether that is possible remains to be seen, Kennon said. But he added that Utsler appeared sympathetic to his call for a complete beach renourishment. Kennon said that is vital to restoring public confidence.
“We don’t need to be marketing a cleaned beach,” he said. “We need to be marketing a new beach.”