Hayward testimony: BP contrite, but not ready to take all blame

BP CEO Tony Hayward, testifying Thursday in Congress about the Gulf oil spill, said other firms are involved and it's too soon to assign blame. Lawmaker cites BP 'complacency' toward safety.

Larry Downing/Reuters
BP CEO Tony Hayward answers a question as he testifies about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill Thursday.

BP chief executive Tony Hayward came under withering attack at a House hearing on Thursday for paying little attention to risks being run at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig before it exploded and caught fire on April 20.

Mr. Hayward sat grim-faced as lawmaker after lawmaker excoriated his firm – and Mr. Hayward personally – for an oil spill that may constitute the greatest environmental disaster in US history.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said internal BP e-mails and briefing papers revealed no hint that either Hayward himself or his firm’s top drilling and exploration officials knew or cared about warnings from Deepwater Horizon workers that they were drilling what one called a “nightmare well.”

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“BP’s corporate complacency is astonishing,” said Representative Waxman.

Thursday’s hearing before the House energy panel’s investigations subcommittee followed an almost preordained storyline of Hayward expressing contrition while lawmakers used him as a convenient target to show constituents they are being tough on BP.

Opening statements from lawmakers ran almost 1-1/2 hours. Hayward’s own opening statement was then interrupted by a protester, who appeared to be slathered with oil, leaping up and saying the CEO should “go to jail.”

The main message Hayward delivered in his initial remarks was, in essence, that he feels the US Gulf Coast pain. Workers lost their lives, and the communities and economy of the states that border the Gulf of Mexico are suffering, he noted.

“Let me be very clear: I fully grasp the terrible reality of the situation,” said Hayward.

Hayward then listed facts and figures about BP’s response – feet of boom laid, number of ships and skimmers deployed, and so forth. But he was not there to talk about the past, in terms of why the accident happened. Blame for the spill should await the outcome of multiple ongoing investigations, he said.

“The truth ... is that this is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures,” said Hayward. “A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early to understand the cause.”

Waxman, however, cited internal e-mails obtained by his committee that appeared to show a lack of interest at BP in alleged problems such as cementing difficulties with the well pipes.

“Who cares? It’s done. End of story. We’ll probably be fined,” said one such internal BP memo, as cited by Waxman.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, said he was with Waxman and the chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing, Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan, regarding to their desire to hold BP accountable for its actions.

But he took the opportunity of the hearing’s opening to blast the White House for its role in pushing BP to set up a $20 billion contingency fund to pay for cleanup and damages to victims of the spill.

“I’m ashamed that a private corporation can be subjected to what I characterize as a shakedown,” said Representative Barton.

Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts disagreed with his colleague, saying, “this is not a shakedown. This is ensuring ... the company is held accountable.”

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