BP CEO apologizes for "thoughtless" oil spill comment

HOUSTON (Reuters) - BP CEO Tony Hayward, on the front lines of his company’s battle to contain the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, apologized on Wednesday for saying he wants “my life back.”

Hayward, who has been thrust into a media spotlight since an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, said in a statement he was appalled when he read his comment.

The BP chief had remarked “I want my life back,” to several news organizations, including Reuters, in recent days.

“I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment,” Hayward said in a statement. “I apologize, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy.”

“My first priority is doing all we can to restore the lives of the people of the Gulf region and their families - to restore their lives, not mine,” he added.

Hayward’s “life back” gaffe was not the first by the plain- speaking and press-shy geologist at the helm of the oil giant.

On May 18, he told Britain’s Sky News: “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.”

Hayward and BP executives have been challenged with the comment -- made before oil hit the Gulf shore -- regularly since in television interviews in the United States, where the spill is dominating the national news.

As much as 19,000 barrels of oil (800,000 gallons or 3 million liters) a day has been pouring into the Gulf off the coast of Louisiana, threatening fisheries, wildlife and beaches along a coastline that stretches to Florida.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper published on May 14, Hayward said: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.””

That remark was typical of the technically accurate comments Hayward makes, which -- particularly when abbreviated -- have led critics to charge that BP is trying to play down the environmental damage.

An abbreviation of the Guardian quote, where Hayward simply refers to the spill as “tiny,” also regularly features in news reports.

BP is beefing up its public relations effort to deal with the spill. This week a former campaign press aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney started as BP’s U.S. spokesperson.

That hire raised some eyebrows, given critics of Cheney -- a one-time chief executive of oil field services firm Halliburton -- associate the former vice president with what they see as excessively close ties between the government and Big Oil under former Republican President George W. Bush.

Reporting by Tom Bergin, Editing by Frances Kerry