As oil continued to gush from an exploded rig in the Gulf of Mexico, lawmakers Tuesday sharply questioned officials from three companies behind the disaster while the executives pointed fingers at each other.
BP, which leased the rig, blamed the failure of a safety device made by another company while that company, Transocean, said Halliburton, the company that poured concrete to plug the well, did not do it correctly.
"I would suggest to all three of you that we are all in this together," said an exasperated Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who supports drilling.
The hearings by two separate Senate committees were the first since the disaster began three weeks ago and underscored rising tension in Florida and other states threatened by the estimated 5,000 barrels a day leaking from the exploratory well about a mile beneath the sea.
"Many legislators in Tallahassee and right here in Washington, D.C., have continued to push to exploit Florida's natural resources at the risk of devastating its largest economic driver," testified Keith Overton, CEO of Tradewinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach and chairman of the 10,000-member Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
The renewed debate over drilling comes as Senate leaders today are to release a sweeping climate and energy bill. A draft obtained by the St. Petersburg Times shows it would allow drilling 75 miles offshore but give Florida and other coastal states the chance to opt-out.
That still may not satisfy all critics, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who has pushed back against a proposal by the Obama administration to drill closer than 125 miles off the Gulf Coast.
"One of my worst nightmares might be becoming true," said Nelson, who spoke before the Committee on Environment and Public Works. "Because if this thing is not stopped … it's going to cover up the Gulf Coast."
Nelson and other Democrats used the opportunity to argue against additional offshore drilling and called for increasing a cap on damages for BP and others from $75 million to $10 billion.
He held up a Department of Interior map showing that 90 percent of the undiscovered oil in the gulf is in the central and western areas, not in the eastern part, near Florida. "Willie Sutton was asked why does he rob banks and he said, 'Because that's where the money is.' The oil is not off of Florida," Nelson said.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., pressed the corporate officials to guarantee a disaster could be prevented in the future.
"I cannot guarantee it," flatly replied Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America.
BP focused on a critical safety device, the 450-ton blowout preventer, that was supposed to shut off oil flow on the ocean floor in the event of a well blowout but "failed to operate."
"That was to be the fail-safe in case of an accident," McKay said, noting his company did not own the rig and that "responsibility for the safety of drilling operations" belonged to Transocean.
Swiss-based Transocean, in turn, focused on BP.
"Offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator, in this case BP," said CEO Steven Newman.
Newman said BP prepared the drilling plan and BP gave the go-ahead to fill the well pipe with seawater before a final cement cap was installed.
The explosion, believed to have originated from upward surging methane within the well, came three days after the drilling process was essentially completed, said Newman, directing a finger at Halliburton, which as a subcontractor was encasing the well pipe in cement before plugging it.
But Halliburton executive Tim Probert said they followed a process dictated by BP's drilling plan and the company's work was done "in accordance with the requirements" set out by BP and followed industry practices.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama grew frustrated grilling the executives on why engineers replaced a heavy "mud" compound in the well with much lighter seawater — thereby reducing downward pressure on the oil — when they were temporarily capping the site. He quoted an oil rig worker saying, "That's when the well came at us, basically."
"I'm not familiar with the individual procedure on that well," BP's McKay said.
Republicans, who have led the push for additional drilling in recent years with the catchy mantra "drill, baby, drill," focused attention on determining the cause of the problem, which they suggested could lie with lax federal oversight as well, and cleanup efforts.
Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux suggested BP pour $1 billion into a fund that affected states would use to form teams to mitigate the damage.
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana split from Democrats and made a case for continued drilling. The responsible party should pay damages, she insisted, but she said pushing the industry aside would cost American jobs.
"I know this committee has its eyes on the environment," she said. "We in Louisiana live in that environment. But we need the oil that comes from offshore to keep this economy moving."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.