Executives from five of the world's largest oil companies came under fire on Capitol Hill for having inadequate and almost identical contingency plans for dealing with potential disasters like the current BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Leaders of the four other oil companies present at the hearing sought to distance themselves from the way BP drilled the Deepwater Horizon well, and all five executives defended offshore drilling as critical to the U.S. economy.
U.S. lawmakers grilled top oil executives for almost five hours Tuesday on the safety of industry practices during a dramatic and intense House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Democratic Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts chaired the hearing, which he called historic.
"This has been an historic hearing, but we are in an historic time. This is the single worst environmental disaster in our country's history. And the American people want to know how it happened, why the response is so inadequate and what we are going to have to do in order to ensure that it never happens again," he said.
Congressman Markey, Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California and other senior Democrats on the panel focused on all five oil companies' disaster response plans, saying documents they have studied reveal that none of them is better equipped than BP to deal with a major oil spill.
Markey said that three of the contingency plans list the phone number for a wildlife expert who has been dead since 2005, and several of the regional plans listed walruses and sea lions as animals that could be affected, though none of them live in the Gulf of Mexico.
Under questioning about the lack of substance of the disaster response plans, ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson admitted that preventing major explosions is key, because once they happen, there is not a lot that can be done.
"The answer to that is that when these things happen, we are not well-equipped to deal with them," he said.
Tillerson did say that he believed the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig tragedy, which killed 11 people could have been prevented, indicating there were likely faults in BP's well design.
"We would not have drilled the well the way they did," he said.
The other oil executives from ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Shell also agreed that they would have had a different well design. Tillerson said the Deepwater Horizon incident represents a dramatic departure from the industry norm, and that investigators need to find out what happened there that did not happen at the other 14,000 offshore oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
Committee Chairman Markey slammed BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay for what he called "lowballing" estimates of how much oil is spilling into the Gulf and demanded an apology from him in this tense exchange between the two men.
Markey: "On the day Mr. McKay that you are ready to apologize…"
McKay: "What's that?"
Markey: "On the day that you are ready to apologize, that is the day that we can begin to move forward and put together the kinds of plans that make sure this never happens again. It was BP's spill, but it was America's ocean. And we need you to admit that you knew or should have known very early on that this was not a spill of 1,000 or 5,000 barrels a day."
BP America Chairman McKay said he was sorry for the loss of life and damage associated with the rig explosion. When he was asked if BP would be willing to put funds into a separate escrow account to compensate those affected by the oil spill, this was his response.
"I cannot comment on whether there will be a fund set aside or not. We have made it clear that the company stands behind these commitments, we have got a strong balance sheet, we have got a strong company, we intend to stand behind those," he said.
Some Republicans on the panel also took a tough stand on BP and the other oil executives. Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida called on BP America Chairman McKay to resign immediately. But several Republican lawmakers joined the oil executives in calling for an end to the six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling declared by President Obama after the spill.
Some Republican lawmakers accused Democrats of using the oil spill crisis to try to push their energy and climate legislation through Congress.