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US Lawmakers Accuse BP Chief of Putting Profits Ahead of Safety

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Cindy Saine

BP's chief executive officer Tony Hayward faced hours of harsh criticism Thursday from members of a congressional panel who said his corporation has a record of taking risks, cutting costs and putting profits ahead of safety which likely contributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.  Hayward said he was deeply sorry for the disaster, but that it is too early to draw conclusions on what caused the April 20th explosion.

BP CEO Tony Hayward said he was "personally devastated" when he learned that 11 people had died in the fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased by his corporation.

"I understand how serious the situation is," said Tony Hayward. "It is a tragedy.  I want to speak directly to the people who live and work in the Gulf region.  I know that this incident has had a profound impact on your lives and caused great turmoil, and I deeply regret that. I also deeply regret the impact the spill has had on the environment."

As Hayward began to testify, a woman protester interrupted the hearing and had to be forcibly restrained and removed from the hearing room by a number of Capitol police officers.  She shouted at Hayward, "You need to be charged with a crime, you need to go to jail!"

The lawmakers did not go that far in their scathing criticism, although some did suggest that Hayward should resign.  Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan pointed out that Hayward enjoyed a 41 percent pay raise last year, while BP profits declined, and wondered what sort of pay raise he will get after this oil disaster in the Gulf this year.  Democratic Representative Bruce Braley of Iowa stressed that the word oil "spill" does not even describe the ongoing gushing of oil.

"And I use the word disaster specifically, because I don't think spill quite captures the magnitude of what is going on," said Bruce Braley.

A number of lawmakers blasted BP for what they called its dismal safety record over the years.  Democratic Representative Bart Stupak said that over the past five years, 26 people have died and 700 were injured in BP accidents, including in this current Gulf spill, a pipeline spill in Alaska and a refinery explosion in Texas.  Democratic Representative Mike Ross of Arkansas summed up the view of many lawmakers that the current disaster is part of a pattern.

"Reports have surfaced revealing that in the days and weeks before the explosion, BP knowingly made a number of decisions that increased the danger of an explosion and spill occurring," said Mike Ross. "It seems apparent that BP put profit before safety.  Many people are dead, millions of gallons of oil continue to spew into the Gulf."

BP chief Hayward said his company's top priority is to stop the oil from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

"First we are doing everything we can to secure the well, and in the meantime, contain the flow of oil." he said. "We are currently drilling two relief wells, we believe they represent the ultimate solution.  We expect this to be complete in August."

But Hayward refused to answer questions about the design of the well and whether BP had warning signs before the explosion that the well had all kinds of problems, prompting this heated exchange with Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California.

Hayward:  "I'm not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision making process. I've looked at the documents. And until the investigations are complete, both yours and others."

Waxman (interrupts): "No,no,no. But that's somebody's else conclusion. What's your conclusion?"

Hayward:  "I haven't drawn a conclusion, Mr. Chairman."

Waxman: "I see. My time is expired and I'm just amazed at this testimony, Mr. Hayward.  You're not taking responsibility. You're kicking the can down the road and acting as if you have nothing to do with this company, and nothing to do with the decisions.  I find that irresponsible."

Earlier in the day, Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas stunned many in the room when he apologized to BP chief Hayward for what he described as political pressure by President Barack Obama on Wednesday to force BP to set up a $20 billion escrow fund to compensate those hurt by the oil disaster.

"But I am ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," said Joe Barton. "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a "shakedown", in this case a $20 billion shakedown, with the attorney general of the United States, who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation, and has every right to do so to protect the interests of the American people, participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund, that is unprecedented in our nation's history, that has got no legal standing and which sets  I think a terrible precedent for the future."

Most of the lawmakers on the House panel strongly disagreed with Barton, and commended President Obama and Hayward for doing the right thing in setting up the fund.  Democrative Representative Edward Markey said he disagreed with Barton in the strongest possible terms, and denied that the creation of the fund is a "shakedown."

"Rather it was the government of the United States working to protect the most vulnerable citizens that we have in our country right now, the residents of the Gulf," said Edward Markey.

The White House quickly released a statement in response, saying that it is "shameful" that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated.  The White House called on members of both parties to repudiate Barton's comments.

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