The United States Congress has launched its probe into the ongoing massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that resulted from an oil rig explosion three weeks ago. The investigation began with the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where the executives of the three companies involved in the disaster came under fire from lawmakers.
They testified under oath in a room steeped in history.
It was the same room where Congress investigated the sinking of the Titanic nearly a century ago.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey:
"At that time, we had a ship so technologically advanced it could not sink," said Senator Menendez. "And here we have a rig that industry told us so many times was so technologically advanced it supposedly could not spill."
But on April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 workers. The rig collapsed and oil started gushing out into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of nearly 800,000 liters per day.
The Deepwater Horizon was leased for drilling by the BP oil company.
Lamar McKay is chairman and president of BP America:
"BP and the entire energy industry are under no illusions about the challenges we face," said Lamar McKay. "We know that we will be judged by our response to this crisis."
McKay told senators that the cause of the rig explosion and spill has not been determined. But he suggested that it might lie with Transocean, Ltd. - the company that owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon.
Transocean Chief Executive Officer Steven Newman pointed to possible shoddy workmanship by a subcontractor - Halliburton - which cemented the oil well to stabilize its walls.
"The one thing we do know is on the evening of April 20th, there was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing or both," said Steven Newman. "Without the failure of one of those elements, the explosion could not have occurred."
But Halliburton President Tim Probert said his company performed its duties in compliance with BP's orders.
"Halliburton is a service provider to the well owner, contractually bound to comply with the well owner's instructions," said Tim Probert.
The exchange seemed to irritate the top Republican Senator on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
"I would suggest to all three of you that we are all in this together because this incident is affecting [and] will have an impact on the development of our energy policy for this country," said Senator Murkowski.
It has already added new fervor to the debate over whether the United States should proceed with more off-shore oil exploration.
As the Senate hearing was winding down, demonstrators were setting off on a march through the streets of Washington to protest plans for more undersea drilling.
There are no indications that Congress will ban the practice. But lawmakers have vowed to strengthen drilling regulations.