Gulf oil spill: The tongue-lashing revs up

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Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday afternoon grilled the same trio of executives from BP America, Transocean and Halliburton who had faced a morning hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. And they ratcheted up the heat on the companies’ alleged culpability, expressing alarm at the effects of the massive gulf oil spill on the region’s environment and economy.

‘Each one of you must feel terrible torment,’ said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who homed in on the issue of responsibility for the April 20 accident that is believed to have spewed at least 4 million gallons of oil into the gulf. He asked each of the parties in turn if they were responsible for the spill. And when each failed to take responsibility, he noted, ‘There is a bit of a hand-off that is taking place.’

Drawing on BP’s description of the sea-floor operation as performing open-heart surgery at 5,000 feet below the ocean surface, Lautenberg asked BP America’s chairman and president, Lamar McKay: ‘If you had open-heart surgery, would you want your doctor 5,000 feet away? ….Is it a good idea to drill at 5,000 feet?’

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) grilled McKay about industry representations that the blowout preventers were effectively fail-safe. ‘Isn’t it accurate that industry touted these blowout preventers as fail-safe?’ Cardin asked, noting that blowout preventers have failed before.


McKay responded, ‘Obviously, this an unprecedented accident, and it’s going to be reviewed in every way it can possibly it can be reviewed.’

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the committee chairwoman, scolded McKay for the company’s claim to federal regulators that the drilling would have ‘no adverse impacts’ on the environment. ‘We
can’t have companies saying one thing to get fast approval and then acting as if they never said it,’ she told McKay. ‘You said we would not have a problem.’

McKay replied, ‘We obviously did not expect a situation like this.’

Boxer hammered BP for assuring that it had ‘proven equipment and proven technology’ and did not need to produce an environmental impact report. But after the spill, BP has said there were ‘significant uncertainties’ about how to fix a spewing well after a blowout because methods ‘have not been tested at this depth before.’

‘This is just unacceptable to say two starkly different things about the same project,’ Boxer said.

Attention focused on the role of Halliburton, the oil services giant responsible for cementing the well shut while waiting for production to begin. Steven L. Newman, chief executive and president of rig owner Transocean, pointed to a ‘sudden catastrophic failure’ of the cement, the casing or both shoring up the well, which were performed by Halliburton. BP also noted there were ‘anomalous pressure tests’ from the well, suggesting a problem with the cement casing.

But Halliburton said such tests were the responsibility of BP to review before proceeding with the capping procedure that was interrupted by the explosion April 20. ‘Had the [blowout preventer] functioned properly, this tragedy wouldn’t have taken place,’ said Halliburton executive Tim Probert.

‘It’s premature’ to assign blame, BP’s McKay told the committee. ‘We must not lose sight of why we are drilling in the gulf,’ he said. The gulf provides one in four barrels of oil produced in the United States.

Senators seized on the spill to advance arguments against expanding coastal drilling. ‘Ultimately, what this spill shows is that offshore oil drilling simply cannot be done safely,’ Lautenberg said.

‘We were told that ‘drill, baby, drill’ was the solution to our energy problems,’ said Sen. Shelton Whitehouse (D-R.I.). ‘I think anybody who really believes that, go tell that to the tourist economy of Florida...Go tell that to the fishing community of Louisiana.’

The executives’ ordeal is far from over. The three men will be back on Capitol Hill on Wednesday testifying before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee. More hearings are planned next week.

-- Richard Simon and Geoffrey Mohan

BP America executives David Nagel, the company’s executive vice president, left, and Lamar McKay, its chairman and president, appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images