House Democrats took BP chief executive Tony Hayward to task Thursday for failing to live up to his 2007 vow to focus “like a laser on safe and reliable operations,” charging that the company’s cost-cutting efforts led to a catastrophic blowout of a deep-water oil well and a continuing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Republicans at a House hearing focused their wrath on the Obama administration, and one offered a personal apology to Hayward for what he called a White House “shakedown” of BP.
After more than an hour and 20 minutes of opening statements by lawmakers, Hayward began opening remarks apologizing for the disaster only to be interrupted by a woman at the back of the hearing room. Her hands and face smeared with what appeared to be oil, she screamed at Hayward, “You need to go to jail!” A commotion ensued as security guards arrested her and took her out of the room.
Earlier, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, told Hayward that a review of 30,000 BP documents found “no evidence that you paid any attention to the tremendous risks BP was taking.”
But the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Joe L. Barton (Tex.), apologized to Hayward and instead took aim at President Obama, saying he was “ashamed” by Wednesday’s White House deal in which BP agreed to set up a $20 billion escrow fund to deal with economic and environmental claims. Barton called it a “$20 billion shakedown.”
“I am ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” Barton said. He said the escrow account amounts to a “slush fund” that has “no legal standing” and sets “a terrible precedent” for other corporations. Calling the deal a “tragedy” and saying that he was speaking for himself, Barton told Hayward, “I apologize.”
Barton referred to BP’s agreement Wednesday to pay $20 billion into an escrow account to cover claims associated with the disaster.
As Hayward sat alone at the witness table surrounded by two dozen photographers, Barton said wrongdoing by BP should be dealt with by the legal system with due process.
In a sharply worded response, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction.”
Gibbs said Barton “may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy,’ but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments.”
Speaking after Barton, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said he “could not disagree more strongly” with the Texas Republican’s remarks.
“Not only is the compensation fund that was created yesterday at the White House . . . not a slush fund and not a shakedown,” Markey said, “rather it was the government of the United States working to protect the most vulnerable citizens that we have in our country right now, the residents of the gulf.” Markey noted that prolonged litigation was only recently resulting in payments to the victims of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker’s 1989 spill off Alaska.
“This is the American government and President Obama ensuring that this company is made accountable,” Markey said of the escrow account.
Hayward is appearing before the Energy Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations to answer questions about the causes of the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the resulting oil spill, the worst in U.S. history.
In an opening statement, Waxman cited internal BP documents as he assailed the company for repeatedly taking “shortcuts” that he said endangered lives and increased the risk of a catastrophic blowout.
“BP’s corporate complacency is astonishing,” Waxman told the panel. He charged that “there is a complete contradiction between BP’s words and deeds.” Hayward was brought in to make safety a top priority but instead took unacceptable risks and “cut corner after corner,” Waxman said, “and now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price.”
In a meeting Wednesday with President Obama at the White House, BP’s board chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, apologized for the spill, then made a public statement of contrition afterward. But Svanberg’s apology was less than well received when he committed a gaffe of sorts by saying, “We care about the small people.”
In his opening statement, Hayward told the panel that he understands the anger of Americans toward him and BP.
“The explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico never should have happened, and I am deeply sorry that it did,” Hayward said. He said he was “personally devastated” when he learned that 11 oil rig workers had been killed in the blast. “My sadness has only grown as the disaster continues,” he said.
Hayward said that “neither I nor the company is perfect,” but that “we are unwavering in our commitment to fulfill all our responsibilities.” He said BP has spent nearly $1.5 billion since the explosion and vowed that it will not rest until the leaking well is plugged and the spill cleaned up.
Hayward told the lawmakers that he does not yet have all the answers to their questions about how the disaster occurred.
“Right now it is simply too early to say what caused the incident,” he said, adding that “multiple investigations” to determine that are underway.
“I understand . . . the concerns, frustrations and fears that have been and will continue to be voiced,” he said. “I give my pledge as the leader of BP that we will not rest until we make this right. We are a strong company, and no resources will be spared.”
He vowed that “we and the entire industry will learn from this terrible event and emerge from it stronger, smarter and safer.”
Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) said BP “must bear the entire burden” of the oil spill, but he accused the Obama administration of “exploiting this disaster” to advance what he called a “disastrous cap-and-trade energy policy” that would put “the oil and gas industry out of business.”
Other Republicans assailed Obama’s imposition of a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling, saying it would destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs.
In a separate hearing, the Interior Department’s inspector general plans to tell the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday that elected officials should consider imposing ethics rules on oil and gas companies that do business with the federal government.
According to a copy of her prepared testimony obtained by The Washington Post, the inspector general, Mary L. Kendall, will also tell the panel that the Minerals Management Agency, which oversees offshore oil drilling, is probing the BP oil spill in a “completely backwards” way and needs to have its culture revamped.