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Gulf oil spill: 'We would not have drilled the way they did,' ExxonMobil says

June 15, 2010 |  9:41 am

Oil-industry executives scrambled Tuesday to stave off a congressional push to limit new offshore drilling and to impose new regulations and higher taxes on their industry in the wake of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The chief executive officers of ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Shell sat at the same table as BP’s top U.S. executive at a Capitol Hill hearing but sought to distance their companies from the British oil giant's ill-fated drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This incident represents a dramatic departure from the industry norm in deep-water drilling," ExxonMobil Chairman and Chief Executive Rex W. Tillerson told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. "We would not have drilled the way they did."

Chevron Chairman and Chief Executive John W. Watson said he believed the investigation into the April 20 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion would show it was "preventable."

Even before the oilmen stood and raised their right hands to be sworn in, they received a nearly 90-minute tongue-lashing from Democratic committee members for having assured that offshore drilling was safe and for spill-response plans that the lawmakers called deficient.

"It could be said that BP is the one bad apple in the bunch. But, unfortunately, they appear to have plenty of company," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), contending the other oil companies were "just as unprepared to respond to a major oil spill in the gulf as BP."

"You should have done more to prevent this unthinkable disaster,’’ added Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). "Even though some may suggest that my home state of North Carolina is not in harm's way, the fact is that we may be. We are not only angry about the spill, but we are scared to death that our coastal area will be affected."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said the oil-spill response plans for all five oil companies were virtually identical -- and "just as deficient" as BP’s plan for responding to the gulf spill. Like BP, three other companies include references to protecting walruses, "which have not called the Gulf of Mexico home for 3 million years," Markey said. "Two other plans are such dead ringers for BP’s that they list a phone number for the same long-dead expert."

Even some of the industry’s usual allies expressed concerns.

"You can’t have a contingency plan that says cross your fingers and hope the blowout preventer works," said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the committee’s top Republican. He was referring to the well-top apparatus that is supposed to close off the flow of oil and gas in case of a loss of well control but did not in the April 20 disaster that killed 11 men.

But Barton cautioned against overly restrictive legislation. "When you take a patient to the emergency room, the solution is not normally to kill the patient," he said. "The solution is to stabilize the patient, determine what needs to be done to save the patient, and then implement that strategy."

The oilmen called offshore drilling critical to the gulf region’s economy and to the nation’s energy security.

Though he said it was "understandably hard to think about the good things our industry does," James J. Mulva, ConocoPhillips' chief executive officer, urged lawmakers to "avoid inadvertently taking short-sighted energy policy positions that would undermine the country’s efforts to achieve national energy security."

The hearing came as Congress considered a raft of legislation that could affect the industry’s bottom line, including doing away with a $75-million cap on industry’s liability for economic damages and a hefty increase on a per-barrel tax to fund oil-spill responses.

-- Richard Simon, in Washington

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