Head of BP rejects taking blame

In a dramatic confrontation with angry members of Congress, a subdued and contrite BP chief Tony Hayward said Thursday that he was "deeply sorry" for the 59-day-old oil spill that continues to despoil the gulf and pledged that "we will make this right."

But in a long day of tough bipartisan questioning, Hayward did little to quell the ire of lawmakers, and he infuriated several by declining to respond to a congressional committee's findings that BP took shortcuts to save time and money on a well that was behind schedule. He repeatedly said BP would not accept or assign blame for the April 20 well blowout until the 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" device that "would have prevented the seal at the wellhead from being blown out," Hayward responded: "I can't answer because I wasn't there," "I don't know" and "I'm afraid I don't know that either."

"I'm just amazed at this testimony," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) told the chief executive.

"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," Waxman said.

As Hayward delivered a message of contrition before the congressional panel, top oil and gas companies were choosing a stance of defiance. In comments submitted to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's chief lobbying arm, argued that the blowout was unforeseeable and, therefore, shouldn't lead to tighter regulations on deep-water rigs.

In the hearing room, Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), a drilling advocate who receives major contributions from the oil and gas industry, set off a partisan row when he apologized to 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 Barton's comments "shameful," and 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, Hayward declined to answer directly, saying that "we came together to figure out a way of working together to resolve what is clearly a very, very serious situation." But under further questioning, Hayward said, "I certainly didn't think it was a slush fund."

In a statement distributed by the House GOP leadership Thursday afternoon, Barton said he regretted his remarks and retracted his apology to Hayward.

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

Lawmakers wasted no time in launching attacks on Hayward, BP's response to the disaster and, particularly, decisions the company made that critics believe led to the failure of the well and the subsequent explosion that killed 11 rig workers.

Hayward replied in a flat, even voice, absorbing the brickbats without argument. "I understand your anger," he repeated several times.

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

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) asked Hayward 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," Hayward said.

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

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

Later, Stearns returned to the subject. "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," Hayward said.

Earlier, Hayward was asked whether he expected to keep his job. He replied, "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."

BP is capturing about 20,000 barrels of the estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil gushing daily from the well. The company hopes to boost that to 40,000 to 50,000 by the end of June and 60,000 to 80,000 by mid-July, Hayward said.

In the gulf, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Thursday that a relief well aimed at plugging the renegade well was ahead of schedule and could be operational in three to four weeks.

Even before he was sworn in, Hayward drew 80 minutes of condemnations from members of both parties contending that his company took "shortcuts" in its drilling operation, has a history of safety lapses and that he and other BP officials made insensitive comments after the spill.

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

In his opening statement, a grim-faced Hayward 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 and expressed his frustration with the response to the spill.

"I want you to keep this in your mind," he said, adding, "We're not just talking about the oil that's still spewing out of that well. We're talking about our way of life."

richard.simon@ latimes.com

scott.kraft@latimes.com

Peter Nicholas of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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