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BP's CEO takes a lashing from Congress, but not blame

WASHINGTON

Channeling the nation's anger, lawmakers pilloried BP's boss in a withering day of judgment Thursday for the oil company at the center of the gulf calamity. Unflinching, BP chief executive Tony Hayward said he was out of the loop on decisions at the well and coolly asserted, "I'm not stonewalling."

That infuriated members of Congress even more, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Testifying as oil still surged into the Gulf of Mexico and coated ever more coastal land and marshes, Hayward declared: "I am so devastated with this accident," "deeply sorry" and "so distraught."

Yet the oil man disclaimed knowledge of any of the myriad problems on and under the Deepwater Horizon rig before the deadly explosion, telling a congressional hearing he had only heard about the well earlier in April, the month of the accident, when the BP drilling team told him it had found oil.

"With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year around the world," Hayward told Republican Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas.

"Yes, I know," Burgess shot back. "That's what scaring me right now."

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., told the CEO: "I think you're copping out. You're the captain of the ship." Democrats were similarly, if more predictably, livid.

"BP blew it," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House investigations panel that held the hearing. "You cut corners to save money and time."

The verbal onslaught had been anticipated for days and unfolded at a nearly relentless pace. Hayward had one seemingly sympathetic listener, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who apologized for the pressure President Barack Obama had put on BP to create a compensation fund. Hours later, after criticism from Republicans and Democrats as well as the White House, Barton backed off and apologized for his apology.

With multiple investigations continuing and primary efforts in the gulf focused on stopping the leak, there was little chance the nation would learn much from Hayward's appearance about what caused the disaster. Yet even modest expectations were not met as the CEO told lawmakers at every turn that he was not tuned in to operations at the well.

He said his underlings made the decisions and federal regulators were responsible for vetting them.

Hayward spoke slowly and calmly in his clipped British accent as he sought to deflect accusations — based on internal BP documents obtained by congressional investigators — that BP chose a particular well design that was riskier but cheaper by at least $7 million.

"I wasn't involved in any of that decisionmaking," he said.

Were bad decisions made about the cement?

"I wasn't part of the decisionmaking process," he said. "I'm not a cement engineer."

Also, "I am not a drilling engineer" and "I'm not an oceanographic scientist."

What about those reports that BP had been experiencing a variety of problems and delays at the well?

"I had no prior knowledge."

At one point a frustrated Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, interrupted the CEO. "You're kicking the can down the road and acting as if you had nothing to do with this company and nothing to do with the decisions. I find that irresponsible."

Hayward quietly insisted: "I'm not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decisionmaking process."

Waxman told the BP executive that in his committee's review of 30,000 items, there was "not a single e-mail or document that you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well."

Burgess slammed both the CEO and the government regulators for a risky drilling plan that he said never should have been brought forward. "Shame on you, Mr. Hayward, for submitting it," Burgess said, "but shame on us for accepting it."

As Hayward began to testify, a protester disrupted the hearing and was forcibly removed from the room by Capitol police. The woman was identified as Diane Wilson, 61, a shrimper from Seadrift, Texas. Her hands stained black, she shouted to Hayward: "You need to be charged with a crime!"

Stupak, the subcommittee chairman and a former Michigan state trooper, noted that over the past five years, 26 people have died and 700 have been injured in BP accidents — including the gulf spill, a pipeline spill in Alaska and a refinery explosion in Texas.

Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla., questioned BP's commitment to safety.

BP had 760 safety violations in the past five years and paid $373 million in fines, Sullivan said. By contrast, Sunoco and ConocoPhillips each had eight safety violations and ExxonMobil just one, Sullivan said.

"How in the heck do you explain that?" he asked Hayward. Hayward said most of those violations predated his tenure as CEO.

Well after 5 p.m., the gavel came down, ending the hearing. In the seven hours it lasted, as many as 735,000 gallons of oil leaked into the gulf.

2.1 billion

BP CEO Tony Hayward says the reservoir that feeds the gushing well probably still holds about 2.1 billion gallons of oil. At the current flow rate, it would take from two to nearly four years for all the oil to leak if it can't be stopped.

BP's CEO takes a lashing from Congress, but not blame 06/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 12:29am]

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