BP Chief Gets Grilling on Capitol Hill – Plus an Apology?

BP CEO Tony Hayward faced tough criticism and pointed questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday, at a hearing into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Unfortunately, while saying he was “deeply sorry” for the devastation his company has brought to the U.S. Gulf Coast, Hayward provided little in the way of answers.

Strangely enough, the head of the oil company responsible for the worst oil spill in U.S. history also received an apology from one member of the House investigations subcommittee. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) was apparently “ashamed” that the Obama administration had convinced BP to fund a $20 billion escrow account to help people and business along the Gulf who are suffering financially because of the spill.

The majority of lawmakers on the subcommittee were not so generous with Hayward, however. The hearing opened with more than an hour of sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republicans (well most of them, anyway) directed at Hayward.

Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, for instance, cited BP’s poor safety record, pointing out that over the past five years, 26 had died and 700 were injured in BP accidents — including the Gulf spill, a pipeline spill in Alaska and a refinery explosion in Texas. According to the Associated Press, Stupak asked Hayward whether the government should ban drilling by companies with such “poor safety records?”

Hayward, who had promised to focus “like a laser” on safety when he became CEO three years ago, insisted that safety was his “top priority.”

As to what may have led to the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 men, Hayward had few answers. When accused of dodging questions, Hayward insisted he wasn’t stonewalling.

A frustrated Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, said it was clear Hayward did not want to answer questions. “You’re kicking the can down the road and acting like you have nothing to do with … this company. I find that irresponsible,” Waxman said.

Barton’s apology to Hayward was one of the most surreal moments of the hearing.

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” Barton said. “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. It is unprecedented in our nation’s history.”

The apology quickly drew a strong rebukes from the White House, Democrats and even many of Barton’s own Republican colleagues.

Later in the day, Barton issued a statement in which he apologized “for using the term ‘shakedown’ with regard to yesterday’s actions at the White House” and retracted his “apology to BP.”

Various media outlets have reported that the House Republican leadership threatened to strip Rep. Joe Barton’s seniority on the Energy and Commerce Committee if he didn’t immediately retract his BP apology.

Of note, Barton’s biggest campaign contributors over the years have been oil and gas interests. According to the Associated Press, the Center for Responsive Politics is reporting that since 1990, PACs of the oil and gas industry and people who worked for it have given more than $1.4 million to Barton’s campaigns, the most of any House member during that period.

Barton’s biggest sponsor? Anadarko Petroleum, from which he’s received $56,500 in PAC donations and another $90,000 in individual contributions since 1989. Incidentally, Anadarko Petroleum is a 25 percent partner in the Macondo Prospect, which was the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, according to the Web site fivethirtyeight.com.

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