Bob Dudley: The Next Face Of BP?

Bob Dudley seems poised to become the face of BP at a crucial time, when the company wants to repair its image and relations in the United States.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Tony Hayward's run as CEO of BP is expected to be over soon. Word is that he will be leaving the post in October. Then it will be Robert Dudley's turn to head the company, as well as the massive cap and cleanup operation in the Gulf of Mexico.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, Dudley is poised to become the first American CEO of the company once known as British Petroleum.

WADE GOODWYN: It's fair to say that current BP CEO Tony Hayward is not widely popular in the U.S. Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon, whose third district encompasses a large swath of the Louisiana coast, has an opinion that's typical along the Gulf.

NORRIS: It appeared that it didn't really faze him the hurt that the people were experiencing or the environmental damage that was looming or growing, and it was kind of a nonchalant attitude.

GOODWYN: So last month, BP took Hayward out as the face of the company on the oil spill and promoted veteran BP executive Robert Dudley to take over the response. Since then, there's been a concerted P.R. campaign on television and in print by BP saying they're committed to the cleanup for the long haul.

The 54-year-old executive has a history of taking on BP's toughest assignments. He headed up the Russian-BP joint venture TNK-BP. It was not smooth sailing. Dudley had trouble with his Russian partners, and BP was eventually forced to concede power in the enterprise.

Robert Ebel is with the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

NORRIS: And I followed his problems with the Russian partners very closely. Of course, it's hard to win a battle against those guys. And they finally decided that he would not be allowed to work in Russia because they didn't grant him a work visa. So he had to leave Russia.

GOODWYN: But BP's joint venture did pretty well financially, and Dudley's tenure was eventually viewed inside the industry as successful, at least as successful as anyone could expect when dealing with Russian oligarchs.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is likely to be every bit the challenge TNK-BP was and more. The company faces open liability, litigation that is likely to stretch a decade. Now, BP is moving to put in place the man they want at the helm. Many observers thought BP would wait a little longer to make sure the spill was over, so that Dudley could start with a clean slate.

Matti Teittinen is a senior analyst at IHS Herold. He says this move suggests BP is feeling pretty good about having capped the well - good enough to let the new guy take over, anyway.

NORRIS: By no means does this mean that it's definitely over, but, you know, I think it does signal that they do have some confidence that they've turned the corner in at least stopping this leak for good.

GOODWYN: But for those who live and work on the Gulf Coast, what Bob Dudley and BP do to repair the damaged economy and environment will mean more than Dudley's American birth. Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon is not getting too excited yet.

NORRIS: If he firsthand takes a personal interest because he comes from Mississippi and comes down and begins an effort to try and heal the wounds, that would probably have more impact on me, rather than, you know, their getting rid of one head of the company and putting in a new head of the company.

GOODWYN: The Associated Press is reporting that current CEO Tony Hayward will be offered the position as head of TNK-BP, the company's joint operation with the Russians. It will be up to the man from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to try to make mends along the Gulf Coast and save his company.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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