Channeling the nation’s anger, lawmakers pilloried BP’s boss in a withering day of judgment Thursday for the oil company at the center of the Gulf calamity. Unflinching, BP chief executive Tony Hayward said he was out of the loop on decisions at the well and coolly asserted, “I’m not stonewalling.”
Yet the oil man disclaimed knowledge of any of the myriad problems on and under the Deepwater Horizon rig before the deadly explosion, telling a congressional hearing he had only heard about the well earlier in April, the month of the accident, when the BP drilling team told him it had found oil.
“Yes, I know,” Burgess shot back. “That’s what scaring me right now.”
“BP blew it,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House investigations panel that held the hearing. “You cut corners to save money and time.”
The verbal onslaught had been anticipated for days and unfolded at a nearly relentless pace.
With multiple investigations continuing and primary efforts in the Gulf focused on stopping the leak, there was little chance the nation would learn much from Hayward’s appearance about what caused the disaster. Yet even modest expectations were not met as the CEO told lawmakers at every turn that he was not tuned in to operations at the well.
He said his underlings made the decisions and federal regulators were responsible for vetting them.
Hayward spoke slowly and calmly in his clipped British accent as he sought to deflect accusations — based on internal BP documents obtained by congressional investigators — that BP chose a particular well design that was riskier but cheaper by at least $7 million.
“I wasn’t involved in any of that decision-making,” he said.
Were bad decisions made about the cement?
“I wasn’t part of the decision-making process,” he said. “I’m not a cement engineer, I’m afraid.”
Also, “I am not a drilling engineer” and “I’m not an oceanographic scientist.”
What about those reports that BP had been experiencing a variety of problems and delays at the well?
“I had no prior knowledge.”
At one point a frustrated Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, interrupted the CEO. “You’re kicking the can down the road and acting as if you had nothing to do with this company and nothing to do with the decisions. I find that irresponsible.”
Hayward quietly insisted: “I’m not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., voiced the committee’s frustrations as the afternoon wore on. “You’re really insulting our intelligence,” he said. “I am thoroughly disgusted.”
Waxman told the BP executive that in his committee’s review of 30,000 items, there was “not a single e-mail or document that you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well."
Burgess slammed both the CEO and the government regulators for a risky drilling plan that he said never should have been brought forward.
“Shame on you, Mr. Hayward, for submitting it,” Burgess said, “but shame on us for accepting it, which is simply a rubber stamp.”
In a jarring departure that caught fellow Republicans by surprise, Rep. Joe Barton, top GOP member of the panel, used his opening statement to apologize — twice — for the pressure put on the company by President Barack Obama to contribute to a compensation fund for people in the afflicted Gulf of Mexico states.
Barton said the U.S. has “a due process system” to assess such damages, and he decried the $20 billion fund that BP agreed to Wednesday at the White House as a “shakedown” and “slush fund.” He told Hayward, “I’m not speaking for anybody else. But I apologize.”
He later retracted his apologies to BP, then apologized anew — this time for calling the fund a “shakedown.” “BP should bear the full financial responsibility for the accident,” he said, and “fully compensate those families and businesses that have been hurt by this accident.”
Barton’s earlier remarks were clearly an embarrassment for the party. House Republican leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mike Pence issued a statement asserting: “Congressman Barton’s statements this morning were wrong. BP itself has acknowledged that responsibility for the economic damages lies with them and has offered an initial pledge of $20 billion dollars for that purpose.”
Since 1990, oil and gas industry political action committees and employees have given more than $1.4 million to Barton’s campaigns, the most of any House member during that period, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
As Hayward began to testify, a protester disrupted the hearing and was forcibly removed from the room by Capitol police. The woman was identified as Diane Wilson, 61, a shrimper from Seadrift, Texas, near the Gulf Coast. Her hands stained black, she shouted to Hayward from the back of the room: “You need to be charged with a crime.”
Stupak, the subcommittee chairman and a former Michigan state trooper, noted that over the past five years, 26 people have died and 700 have been injured in BP accidents — including the Gulf spill, a pipeline spill in Alaska and a refinery explosion in Texas.
Hayward argued that safety had always been his top priority and “that is why I am so devastated with this accident.” When he became CEO in 2007, Hayward said he would focus “like a laser” on safety, a phrase he repeated on Thursday.
Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla., questioned BP’s commitment to safety.
BP had 760 safety violations in the past five years and paid $373 million in fines, Sullivan said. By contrast, Sunoco and ConocoPhillips each had eight safety violations and ExxonMobil just one, Sullivan said.
“How in the heck do you explain that?” he asked Hayward. Hayward said most of those violations predated his tenure as CEO. “We have made major changes in the company over the last three to four years,” he said.
An estimated 73.5 million to 126 million gallons of oil has come out of the breached wellhead, whether into the water or captured.
The reservoir that feeds the well still holds about 2 billion gallons of oil, according to the first public estimate Hayward has given of the size of the undersea oil field.
That means the reservoir is believed to still hold 94 percent to 97 percent of its oil. At the current flow rate, it would take from two years to nearly four years for all the oil to be drained from it.
Associated Press writers Tom Raum, Matthew Daly, H. Josef Hebert, Seth Borenstein, Matt Apuzzo, Eileen Sullivan and Ben Feller in Washington and Harry Weber in Houston contributed to this report.