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Gulf oil spill: Congressional frustration with BP chief Tony Hayward

June 17, 2010 | 12:04 pm

A House investigative panel resumed its grilling of BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward on Thursday afternoon after a frustrating morning during which oil company chief spent much time avoiding tough questions.

“I sincerely hope that you will reconsider your approach to these questions,” Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce panel, told Hayward, who sat expressionless at the witness table. “I hope you will be more forthcoming and less evasive with your answers for the remainder of this hearing.”

Hayward had come before the subcommittee on oversight and investigations to apologize for the oil leak at BP’s underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico and to pledge to make it all right. He stayed focused on those two points even though the committee wanted specific answers on safety issues and on whether BP had cut corners leading up to the disaster that began in April, when a deep-water rig exploded and the well began gushing millions of barrels of oil into the gulf.

In one exchange, Stupak noted that in the last five years, 26 workers had died and 700 had been injured in accidents at BP sites in Alaska and Texas. The lawmaker criticized the company’s poor safety record.
Safety is always a top priority, “that is why I am so devastated with this accident,” Hayward insisted.

Asked directly what BP had learned about safety from the gulf accident, Hayward, as he had noted in his opening statement, would say only that “our investigation is ongoing.”

“You have not reached a conclusion that BP cut corners?” Stupak asked.

“I think it's too early to reach conclusions, Mr. Chairman,” Hayward replied.

“I'm amazed at this testimony, Mr. Hayward,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said at one point. “You are not taking responsibility. You are kicking the can down the road.”

Hayward said he was “not prepared to draw conclusions until investigation is completed.”

“I'm not stonewalling,” he said.

As the hearing continued, it seemed that the more specific the inquiries, the greater the frustration for the lawmakers. For example, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), as he often does, demanded a "yes" or "no" answer to his questions, leading to this exchange:

Dingell: Mr. Hayward, you had two choices, using single casing or tie-back. The risks are substantial associated with single casing, which is what BP chose. Please answer yes or no. Can you assure us that, under oath, that that was not a decision made to save time and money?

Hayward: I wasn't part of that decision-making process. It was...

Dingell: I'm sorry?

Hayward: I was not part of that decision-making process, so I can't possibly know the basis on which that decision was taken.

Dingell: How much money was saved by using the single string casing?

Hayward: I believe the documents refer to a sum of, I think -- I think -- $7 [million] to $10 million. And they also refer to the fact that the casing would have longer term integrity ...

Dingell: Please, please ...

With answers to some specifics difficult, it was the politics that took over.

Earlier, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) stunned the committee with his comments about the agreement by BP and the White House to establish a $20-billion escrow fund to aid victims of the spill. The agreement was announced on Wednesday after President Obama met with top BP executives.

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” Barton said. “I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown. In this case, a $20-billion shakedown with the attorney general of the United States, who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation and has every right to do so to protect the interests of the American people, participating in what amounts to a $20-billion slush fund. It is unprecedented in our nation’s history.”

The comments have been widely attacked by Democrats and the White House. Republicans have questioned Barton's language, but questions about the fund seem part of the GOP position.

“I am not going to apologize to you,” Rep. Michael Burgess, another Texas Republican, told Hayward in an apparent reference to Barton’s earlier comments.

“‘It was, after all, BP executives who were on that rig, BP executives who ultimately could have made the call to stop operations when things became unsafe,” he said. “Ultimately you are the person at the top, and you are responsible.”

“I don’t feel apologies are in order, but I do have serious questions about the fund,” he continued, noting that he also had questions about whether the federal government had done its job to oversee offshore drilling.

“Shame on you for submitting it,” Burgess told Hayward of BP’s offshore-drilling plans sent to the government. “Shame on us for accepting it.”

-- Richard Simon in Washington

-- Michael Muskal in Los Angeles


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Congressional hearings begin with attack on BP

Partisan politics over $20-billion escrow fund

White House attacks GOP lawmaker for criticism of BP escrow account

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