Lawmakers Berate Oil Execs over Response Plans

From left, ExxonMobile Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, Chevron Chairman and CEO John Watson, ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva, Shell Oil President Marvin Odum, and BP America chairman and president Lamar McKay are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 15, 2010, prior to testifying before the House Energy and Environment subcommittee hearing on oil drilling. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari) AP

Updated 7:01 p.m. EDT

BP's Lamar McKay went before Congress Tuesday to answer questions about the oil spill. Other top oil executives stood shoulder-to-shoulder for the oath and then tried their best to put distance between their companies and BP, reports CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

Members of Congress chastised the largest oil companies Tuesday, saying they are no better prepared to avoid an environmental catastrophe than BP was when its well exploded, unleashing millions of barrels of crude.

With top oil company executives waiting to testify at a House hearing, Rep. Henry Waxman asserted that the companies' spill response plans amounted to "paper exercises" that mirrored BP's failed plan. Their strategies to plug a spill deep beneath the sea are the same failed strategies that have stymied BP, the California Democrat said.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

The other companies "are no better prepared to deal with a major oil spill than was BP," said Waxman, setting the tone for a tense hearing.

One lawmaker after another expressed frustration at BP's inability to stop oil gushing from its stricken well as the chief executives representing ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell - as well as BPAmerica - sat shoulder to shoulder at the witness table.

Rep. Ed Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee, said the five companies' response plans "cite identical response capabilities and tout identical ineffective equipment." Markey said that two plans list the phone number for the same dead expert, and three include references to protecting walruses - which do not live in the Gulf

Markey said that while the companies present at the hearings have reaped nearly $300 billion in profits over the last three years, they each spend around $20 million annually on safety and spill response - less than one-tenth of 1 percent of profits. He said that the companies pay nothing for leases to drill on public land worth at least $50 billion.

"Time after time BP appears to have taken shortcuts that increased the risks of catastrophic blowout," Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said in his opening statement.

He also criticized the oil companies' "cookie cutter plans" and said that BP's competitors are as unprepared as BP was to respond to a spill. All five response plans were produced by the same third-party company, Waxman said, and contain much of the same text.

"The record does not support that the other companies here today have been more prepared than BP," said Waxman.

Each company's plan for cases in which a blowout preventer fails - the exact scenario that led to the current disaster - includes only a few vague sentences about assembling a team of technical experts.

As for BP, McKay wasn't about to say he's sorry for allegedly lowballing the amount of oil coming from the well at the start, leading many to underestimate the predicted impact.

"Are you ready to apologize for getting that number so grossly wrong?" asked Markey.

"We have provided every bit of data we've got into the unified area command," said McKay.

Your cameras, your technology, your expertise that the American people were relying upon, and you got it completely wrong. Please, one final chance, apologize," said Markey.

"We are sorry for everything that the Gulf coast is going through," said McKay. "We are sorry for that and the spill. "

"I really think you should be resigning as chairman of BP America," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) "I'm not asking you to apologize. I'm asking you to resign."

"In the Asian culture we do things differently. During the samurai days we just give you a knife and just ask you to commit hara-kiri," said Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.)

Related:

Obama Looks to Reassure, Flex Muscle on Spill
BP Gets OK to Burn Captured Gulf Oil at Sea
Foreign Flagging of Oil Rig Tied to Blast Cause
Obama Seeks to Show Control of Spill with Oval Office Address
Gibbs: BP Will Be Removed From Claims Process
Gulf Coast Skeptical of Obama's Spill Response
Vulnerable Gulf Species
Oil Drowning Small Businesses
11-Year-Old Draws for Gulf Relief

Perhaps the most scathing opening statement came from Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who pointed out that ExxonMobil's plan includes a 40-page appendix on managing public relations in the wake of a disaster - far more material than it devotes to protecting wildlife, for example.

The PR plan includes pre-scripted responses to questions about criminal charges, global warming, and the deaths of hypothetical accident victims, and pre-written press releases saying the company "deeply regrets" an outcome or is "deeply saddened" by deaths.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing unfolded as President Barack Obama was on the Gulf coast for the second day and walked on a beach near Pensacola, Fla. as onlookers chanted "Save our beach, save our beach." Obama planned to address the nation Tuesday night on the oil spill.

The House hearing marked the first time that the chief executives of the major oil companies - all leaders in deep-water drilling in the Gulf - were called before Congress since the April 20 BP explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. The accident unleashed the nation's worst oil spill. The government has estimated that as much as 2 million gallons of oil a day may be flowing into the Gulf.

Waxman's committee is expected to question BPAmerica chairman Lamar McKay on internal company e-mails and documents that the lawmaker said showed that BP made repeated decisions in the days and hours before the explosion that increased the risk of a major well blowout.

Chevron CEO John Watson said Chevrons deep water drilling activities "are safe and environmentally sound," But he said the company welcomes any new standards and "we must learn from this accident."

Some executives sought to distance themselves from BP.

ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson told the committee that the Gulf spill would not have occurred if BP had properly designed its deepwater well.

"We do not proceed with operations if we cannot do so safely," said Tillerson.

Insisted Shell president Marvin Odum, "Safety and environmental protection shall and will be Shell's top priorities."

Meanwhile, federal officials have given permission for BP to use a new method for capturing oil from the damaged wellhead, including burning some of the oil off after it is collected and brought to the surface.

BP said Monday it hopes to trap roughly 2.2 million gallons of oil daily by the end of June as it deploys additional containment equipment, including the flaring system.

Obama's trip to the Gulf was his fourth since the spill began. The president, who visited Mississippi and Alabama on Monday and Florida's coast Tuesday, sought to assure residents - and the country - that the government will "leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."

On Monday, Waxman's committee released documents that showed BP made a series of money-saving shortcuts and blunders that dramatically increased the danger of a destructive spill from a well that an engineer ominously described as a "nightmare" just six days before the April blowout.

Investigators found that BP was badly behind schedule on the project and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars with each passing day, and responded by cutting corners in the well design, cementing and drilling efforts and the installation of key safety devices.

"Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense. If this is what happened, BP's carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig," Waxman and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations panel, wrote in a letter.

So far, 114 million gallons of oil have poured into the Gulf under the worst-case scenario described by scientists - a rate of more than 2 million gallons a day. BP has collected 5.6 million gallons of oil through its latest containment cap on top of the well, or about 630,000 gallons per day.

In a prepared statement released before the hearing began, the head of BP America said that despite the catastrophic oil spill, the U.S. cannot do without oil from the Gulf of Mexico.

BP America chairman and president Lamar McKay said in prepared testimony that America's economy, security and standard of living "significantly depend upon domestic oil and gas production." He said that companies have operated in the Gulf safely and reliably. The Associated Press obtained a copy of his remarks prior to delivery.

McKay warned that reducing energy production without consumption would shift jobs offshore - and put millions of additional barrels onto tanker ships that travel across oceans.
  • CBSNews

Comments