Oil Executives Pass The Blame In Senate Hearings

On Tuesday, chiefs from BP, Halliburton and Transocean were in the hot seat; their three firms were all involved in the deepwater oil well that blew out three weeks ago in the Gulf of Mexico. And they blamed each other for the mess.

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The pattern has become familiar. First, there's a disaster, then top executives troop to Capitol Hill to make explanations and bear the wrath of lawmakers.

Today, chiefs from BP, Halliburton and Transocean were on the hot seat. Their firms were all involved in the deepwater oil well that blew out three weeks ago in the Gulf of Mexico.

And as NPR's David Welna reports, they blamed each other for the mess that followed.

DAVID WELNA: With billions of dollars in liabilities at stake and a potentially devastating oil mess to clean up, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman wasn't taking any chances with the three witnesses seated before him.

Senator JEFF BINGAMAN (Democrat, New Mexico; Chairman, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee): Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Please be seated.

WELNA: BP America's president and chairman was first to testify. Lamar McKay was contrite about the disaster caused by the oil well his company was drilling in the Gulf.

Mr. LAMAR McKAY (President, BP America): There is a deep and steadfast resolve to do all we humanly can to stop the leak, contain the spill and to minimize the damage suffered by the environment and the people of the Gulf Coast.

WELNA: But McKay also seemed to point a finger of blame at Transocean. It actually operated the oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, and its blowout preventers failed to staunch the leaking oil.

Mr. McKAY: Why did Transocean's blowout preventer, the key fail-safe mechanism, fail to shut in the well and release the rig?

WELNA: Transocean CEO Steven Newman in turn raised questions about a cementing job done by Halliburton, which failed to seal the well head.

Mr. STEVEN NEWMAN (CEO, Transocean): Was the well properly designed? Were there problems with the casing or the seal assembly? Was the casing properly cemented and the well effectively sealed? Were all appropriate tests run on the cement and the casing?

WELNA: Halliburton's Tim Probert shot back that his company was simply following BP's instructions.

Mr. TIM PROBERT (Chief Health, Safety and Environmental Officer, Halliburton): Halliburton is confident that the cementing work on the Mississippi Canyon 252 well was completed in accordance with the requirements of the well owner's well construction plan.

WELNA: Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski honed in on the blowout preventers, known as BOPs. She pressed BP's McKay about reports the devices had been altered.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): Do you have any reason to believe that the Deepwater Horizon BOP was modified?

Mr. McKAY: During our intervention work in the last three weeks, we have - we do have reason to believe that it was modified. I don't know the extent of those modifications.

Sen. MURKOWSKI: Mr. Newman, can you speak to that, because I am assuming if there were any modifications that would have been done by Transocean?

Mr. NEWMAN: They were, in fact, done by Transocean, Senator. They were performed in 2005. They were done at BP's request and at BP's expense.

WELNA: Newman explained the changes had been made to speed up testing and allow drilling operations to proceed more quickly, and thus save BP money. Washington state Democrat Maria Cantwell wanted to know what McKay meant by saying BP would pay all legitimate claims.

Mr. McKAY: We have said exactly what we mean. We're going to pay the legitimate claims.

Senator MARIA CANTWELL (Democrat, Washington): Okay, so if it's a legitimate claim, a harm to the fishing industry, both short term and long term, you're going to pay?

Mr. McKAY: We're going to pay all legitimate claims.

Sen. CANTWELL: If it's an impact for business loss from tourism, you're going to pay?

Mr. McKAY: We're going to pay all legitimate claims.

Sen. CANTWELL: To state and local governments for lost tax revenue, you're going to pay?

Mr. McKAY: Question mark.

Sen. CANTWELL: Long-term damages to the Louisiana fishing industry and its brand?

Mr. McKAY: I can't quantify or speculate on long term. I don't know how to define it.

WELNA: Which is why this blame game will likely be played out in court.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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