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Published: Friday, 6/18/2010

BP chief's apologies for Gulf oil spill fail to satisfy Congress

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

WASHINGTON - In a dramatic confrontation with an Congress, a subdued and contrite BP chief Tony Hayward said yesterday he was "deeply sorry" for the 59-day-old oil spill that despoils the Gulf and pledged, "We will make this right."

But, in a long day of tough bipartisan questioning, Mr. Hayward did little to quell lawmakers' ire, and he infuriated several by declining to respond to a congressional panel's findings that BP took shortcuts to save time and money on a well behind schedule. He repeatedly said BP would not accept or assign blame for the April 20 well blowout until investigations were complete.

Asked about the decisions to use what congressional investigators have called a risky well-casing plan, to not conduct a time-consuming test of the well's cement job, and to not use a "lockdown sleeve" that "would have prevented the seal at the wellhead from being blown out," he replied: "I can't answer because I wasn't there," "I don't know," and "I'm afraid I don't know that either."

He disclaimed knowledge 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.

"With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year around the world," Mr. Hayward told Republican Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas.

"Yes, I know," Mr. Burgess shot back. "That's what scaring me right now."

"I'm just amazed at this testimony," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.) said. "You're not taking responsibility. 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," Mr. Waxman said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe L. Barton (R., Texas), a drilling advocate who gets major contributions from the oil and gas industry, set off a row when he apologized to Mr. Hayward for what he called a White House "shakedown" that pressured BP to set up a $20 billion "slush fund" to pay economic damages, calling it "a tragedy of the first proportions."

The White House called Mr. Barton's comments "shameful." Vice President Joe Biden said they were "incredibly insensitive and incredibly out of touch."

Asked later whether he felt BP had been shaken down by the White House, Mr. Hayward declined to answer directly, saying, "We came together to figure out a way of working together to resolve what is clearly a very, very serious situation."

Later, Mr. Hayward said: "I certainly didn't think it was a slush fund."

Late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Barton said he regretted his remarks and retracted his apology.

The highly anticipated hearing was Congress' first opportunity since the rig explosion to question the BP official who has been the focus of anger across the Gulf and in Washington.

Lawmakers wasted no time in launching attacks on Mr. Hayward, BP's response, and, particularly, decisions the firm made that critics say led to the well's failure and the fatal explosion.

Mr. Hayward replied in a flat, even voice. "I understand your anger," he said repeatedly.

He parried with several of his questioners largely avoiding attempts to get him to adopt their charged descriptions of BP's actions.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R., Fla.) asked him whether it would be appropriate to tell Floridians that oil was spilling onto their coast "because of BP's reckless behavior."

"It's a consequence of a big accident," Mr. Hayward said.

"No, yes or no. Reckless behavior or not?" Mr. Stearns pressed.

"There is no evidence of reckless behavior," Mr. Hayward said.

Later, Mr. Stearns said, "In light of all the environmental damage, the human damage and … information from your peers saying that you were, indeed reckless … you still are going to stonewall us this afternoon and … say, 'We did nothing wrong.' ... Is that correct?"

"I believe we should wait for the conclusions of the various investigations before we make decisions based on those conclusions," Mr. Hayward said.

He also was asked whether he would keep his job. "At the moment I'm focused on the response. … The highest priority is to stop the leak, contain the oil on the surface, and clean it up. And that is what my focus is."

BP is capturing about 20,000 barrels of the estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil gushing daily from the well. The firm hopes to boost that to 40,000 to 50,000 by the end of June and 60,000 to 80,000 by mid-July, Mr. Hayward said. In the Gulf, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said a relief well aimed at getting BP to plug the well was ahead of schedule and could be operational in three to four weeks.

Even before he was sworn in, Mr. Hayward drew 80 minutes of condemnations from members of both parties for taking "shortcuts" in its drilling operation, for safety lapses, and for his and other BP officials' perceived insensitive comments.

"•We are not small people, but we wish to get our lives back," Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) told Mr. Hayward, recalling the chief executive officer's remark that he "would like my life back" and BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg's comment that BP cares about the Gulf's "small people."

A grim-faced Mr. Hayward, who sat alone before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, said he understood "the concerns, frustrations, and fears that have been and will continue to be voiced. I know that only actions and results, not mere words, ultimately can give you the confidence you seek. I give my pledge as the leader of BP that we will not rest until we make this right."

Rep. Bruce Braley (D., Iowa) played videotaped testimony from two widows of workers killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. And Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) held up a picture of an oil-soaked pelican to Mr. Hayward and expressed his frustration. "I want you to keep this in your mind…," he said. "We're not just talking about the oil that's still spewing out of that well. We're talking about our way of life."



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