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BP CEO's Stand-In Heckled at Oil Meeting

Last Updated 9:28 a.m. ET

A BP executive attending an oil industry conference in place of CEO Tony Hayward joined other industry executives sharply criticizing President Barack Obama's six-month ban on deepwater drilling in the U.S. - and was heckled by activists protesting the company's response to the ongoing Gulf of Mexico spill.

BP chief of staff Steve Westwell was interrupted twice during his address to the World National Oil Companies Congress in London Tuesday by protesters shouting "We need to end the oil age!" At point point two women came to the podium, one unfurling a banner featuring an oil-smeared BP logo and the message, "Go Beyond Petroleum."

The hecklers were escorted out of the central London hotel by security.

Outside, one of the protesters, Emma Gibson, called on BP to end its investment in a controversial Canadian tar sands project and end deepwater drilling.

"We wanted to deliver the truth, which is that we really need to speed up progress to end the oil age," Gibson told reporters.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

Westwell said that regulators around the world "will obviously want to know what happened" to cause the blown-out well in the Gulf and change their procedures accordingly.

But, he said, deepwater drilling - an expensive, risky and largely uncharted process - is needed as supplies of land and shallow water oil diminish.

"The world does need the oil and the energy that is going to have to come from deepwater production going forward," Westwell said. "Therefore, the regulatory framework must still enable that to be a viable commercial position."

A U.S. federal judge is mulling whether to lift the moratorium on new deepwater drilling imposed by Mr. Obama and will decide by Wednesday.

Other oil companies and contractors have appealed to the Obama administration to lift the moratorium, arguing it is choking off the Gulf region's primary source of income at a time when people are already struggling to make ends meet thanks to the disaster.

Meanwhile, Westwell said Hayward was "genuinely sorry" not to be at the conference, where he had been due to give a keynote address on about the global responsibilities of international oil companies.

When questioned about Hayward's position and whereabouts, Westwell said, "He is the CEO," adding that Hayward was in London attending to other company matters.

"He and I both hope you understand his schedule is under incredible pressure at the moment," Westwell told delegates.

On Monday Hayward canceled his scheduled appearance at the London oil conference, citing his commitment to the Gulf relief effort. The pull-out followed stinging criticism for spending Saturday at England's Isle of Wight to see his yacht compete in a race. That outing drew outrage from Gulf coast residents and an acerbic response from the White House.

Westwell also declined to comment on BP's public battle with one of its partners over who is responsible for the catastrophic failure of the Deepwater Horizon well, which has leaked more than 120 million gallons of oil already, according to the most pessimistic U.S. government estimates.

Transocean Ltd. president and CEO Steven Newman, owner of the destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig (which was operated by BP), said Mr. Obama's ban, which is currently being reviewed by a U.S. federal judge, was unnecessary.

"There are things the administration could implement today that would allow the industry to go back to work tomorrow without an arbitrary six-month time limit," Newman told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting.

The moratorium has been challenged in court. Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans has said he will make a decision on it by Wednesday.

Chevron executive Jay Pryor, also at the London conference, said the U.S. government's move would "constrain supplies for world energy."

"It would also be a step back for energy security," said Pryor, global vice president for business development at the U.S. company.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which has a 25 percent stake in the well, has said BP was grossly negligent in its operation of the failed drilling rig and that the companies' joint operating agreement makes BP responsible to co-owners for any damage due to gross negligence or willful misconduct.

"We will need to wait for the investigation to conclude," Westwell said, while noting that Anadarko was a responsible partner in the well.

Westwell also declined to comment on what assets BP might sell off if the cost of the cleanup and the relief effort in the Gulf takes too heavy a toll. The company, which turned a $16 billion profit last year, has spent $2 billion fighting the spill for the last two months. It has also set up a $20 billion fund to compensate victims.

Oil from the blown-out undersea well has been washing up from Louisiana to Florida, killing birds and fish, coating marshes and wetlands and covering pristine beaches with tar balls and oily debris. A pair of relief wells considered the best chance at a permanent fix won't be completed until August.

The industry pleas came after lawmakers from the Gulf States - from both sides of the political aisle - asked Mr. Obama to drop the moratorium.

"I beg the president to reconsider," said Rep. Charles Meloncon (D-LA), whose district in southern Louisiana has been one of the hardest hit by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meloncon and members from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi argued that despite ongoing safety and environmental concerns, the ban on drilling only serves to cause more harm in an already-devastated region.

Many said they believe the moratorium is a political overreaction.

"If an airplane crashed in the United States, it would be horrible and people would die, but we don't close down all the airlines in the United States for six months," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). "We don't do that in any other disaster."

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