BP CEO Tony Hayward stonewalled his way through more than seven hours of grilling from a congressional panel Thursday on the decisions his company made in the days and hours leading up to the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I fully grasp the terrible reality of the situation," he told lawmakers, pledging that BP will "do what we can to make certain that an incident like this does not happen again."
But members on both sides of the aisle left the hearing frustrated by Mr. Hayward’s refusal to acknowledge liability or even mistakes on issues such as the design of the well and missed opportunities to prevent the explosion.
Much of the questioning from members of both parties was based on a 14-page letter sent to Hayward on Monday that laid out the results of a probe by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The letter asked Hayward to be prepared Thursday to respond to evidence that "BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk.”
Throughout the day on Thursday, Hayward refused to answer direct questions on such issues. His responses ranged from "I was not involved in that decision, so it's impossible for me to answer that question” to “I'm afraid I can’t recall that” or, simply, “I don't know.”
“BP’s corporate complacency is astonishing," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. “Your testimony continues to be at odds against all independent scientists," added Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts.
While BP agreed on Wednesday to set aside $20 billion for an escrow account to compensate victims of the disaster, Hayward said in his testimony Thursday that he has no intention of acknowledging legal liability.
"Let me be clear: BP has accepted this responsibility, and we will fulfill this obligation,” he said in an opening statement. But he added: "It is important to understand that this ‘responsible party’ designation is distinct from an assessment of legal liability for the actions that led to the spill."
With as many as 60,000 barrels per day (2.5 million gallons) of oil still gushing in the Gulf, according to the latest estimate, the full extent of liability and cleanup costs is far from certain.
“People like Hayward are going to be reluctant to offer much of use because of exposure to liability,” says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia. “That makes it very difficult for Congress to learn much. Virtually none of this is resolved.”
In a rare defense of the embattled oil giant, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, began the morning by apologizing to Hayward for what he termed the $20 billion “slush fund” that BP had been forced by the Obama White House to set up. It was a "shakedown" and "terrible precedent," Representative Barton said.
GOP leaders had hoped to use the hearings as a chance to focus attention not just on BP, but also on the negligence of government regulators. Instead, they were quickly caught up in a firestorm over Barton's remarks. “I have said since the beginning that BP ought to be held responsible for every dime of this tragedy," said House Republican leader John Boehner at his midday weekly briefing.
By the afternoon session Barton, at the urging of House GOP leaders, had shifted gears. "I want to be absolutely clear that I think BP is responsible for this accident, should be held responsible and should in every way do everything possible to make good on the consequences that have resulted from this accident," he said in an afternoon statement.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats emerging from a caucus Thursday resolved to take another run at passing energy legislation. "One of the many lessons of the BP disaster is we can't afford to continue business as usual," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid. To do that will require "the cooperation of brave Republicans,” he added.
But environmental activists say that the politics of lessening a dependence on oil will take substantial political will and clout to wear down industry lobbyists. "The root problem is political contributions, oil lobbyists’ access, and the Supreme Court's recent approval of unlimited corporate campaign spending," says John Bonine, a law professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene and founder of the American branch of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, a coalition of noncorporate environmental lawyers. “That's why getting off the oil economy will be so difficult, almost impossible.”