No Winners in Congress vs. BP

One of the most dangerous places on the planet is in between a politician and a camera. The scene at the ritual public flogging of BP CEO Tony Hayward in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on Thursday held nothing new in that regard.

If Hayward weren’t such an unsympathetic figure, the display from our politicians would have been downright obscene.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee, pelted Hayward with question after question he knew full well no responsible executive (or politician for that matter) would answer in the midst of an unfolding crisis investigation that could threaten the survival of a company. 

REP. BART STUPAK:  Did BP’s leadership manage the risk in this well? Did you manage the risk properly?

TONY HAYWARD:  Since I have been the CEO of this company, we have focused on safe, reliable operations.

What else what he supposed to say?  With lawsuits pending in the billions of dollars and the value of the publicly traded stock that undergirds U.K. and American pension plans alike, it would have been irresponsible for him to say anything else.

STUPAK:  The June 14th letter we put out the other day, we went through five major areas.  The head of the CEOS of all of the other oil companies were before this committee Tuesday and all said you did it wrong.  They never would have done a well this way.  You made decisions whether to do a casing or a string with the tie back which everyone said the tie back would have been safer.  The lockdown sleeve, centralizers, instead of doing 21 as is recommended you only do six.  That defies this safety emphasis does it not?

HAYWARD:  We have launched an investigation which we have shared with yourself, Mr. Chairman, and all of your members which has identified seven areas.  It’s identified areas around cement, casing, integrity pressure measurement, well control procedures, and three areas around the blowout preventer which failed to operate.  Our investigation is ongoing, it’s not complete.

And on it went from both sides of the aisle.  No answers and a lot of questions.

When asked about specific circumstances of the Deepwater Horizon drilling plans by Rep. Mike Burgess (R-Texas), Hayward again dodged.

“With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year around the world,” Hayward said.

“Yes, I know,” Burgess quipped.  “That’s what’s scaring me right now.

The most controversial moment in the hearing came with Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), top Republican on the committee, offered a personal apology for what he termed a “shakedown” by the White House on Wednesday when it demanded BP set up a $20 billion escrow fund.

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” Barton told Hayward at a congressional hearing. “If I called you into my office and I had the subcommittee chairman Mr. Stupak with me, who was legitimately conducting an oversight investigation on your company, and said, “If you put so many millions of dollars in a project in my congressional district,’ I could go to jail.”

With Atty. Gen. Eric Holder present in the meeting at the White House, the President demanded $20 billion from the chief executive of an international corporation under implied threat of criminal prosecution.  If Obama were not cloaked in the safety of acting as President of the United States under those circumstances, he might be forced to forfeit his license to practice law. 

Under pressure from Republican leadership, Barton later returned to the hearing and retracted his apology.

BP has an egregious safety record.  As the second largest oil company operating in the U.S., BP has received 760 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations over the past five years for deliberate, willful disregard for workplace safety.  The largest, Exxon-Mobil, has one comparable OSHA citation, Citgo has two and Sunoco and Conoco-Phillips each have eight.

The committee studied over 30,000 emails and claims none of the higher levels of management were informed of the problems experienced on the Deepwater Horizon well before the explosion.

“BP’s corporate complacency is astounding,” said committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “Now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price.”

Eleven men lost their lives April 20 under highly questionable circumstances.  BP should be held responsible, without question—but not without due process of law.

Absent from the hearing was any representative of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) that had government oversight and permitting responsibility over every single aspect of the BP operations.

Burgess asked several times why MMS wasn’t present answering for their role in the approval and oversight process.

“We need Mr. Salazar here and whoever’s in charge of MMS,” Burgess said to subcommittee chairman Stupak.

“MMS isn’t going to help Mr. Hayward answer these questions,” Stupak shot back.

Which summed up the entire purpose of the hearings: blame BP and dodge government culpability under the glaring media spotlight.