BP's McKay Taken To Task By Senate Panel

Members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee grilled the chairman of BP America Monday about the blown out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Lamar McKay acknowledged that no plan was in place to deal with a catastrophic failure, but said several options are being pursued to shut down the runaway well.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

In the Gulf of Mexico, the oil from the damaged well is still gushing; and in Washington, congressional hearings continue. Today, three Senate committees will question industry and government officials on the disaster. Yesterday, a Senate panel grilled a BP executive about the company's response. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: It's a common scene on Capitol Hill, after - and even amid - a disaster, lawmakers call those involved to appear before them and express surprise that more was not done to avert the crisis. And they also vow to make sure it never happens again.

That's pretty much what took place yesterday at the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Maine Republican, Susan Collins, told BP America Chairman, Lamar McKay, that she believes his company, which owns the well, is doing what it can to contain the spill.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): But it feels like you're making it up as you go along. That no one really knows what will plug this well.

NEARY: And McKay admitted there was no plan, per se, to deal with the kind of disaster now taking place in the Gulf. But he said the company is pursuing a range of options, such as drilling relief wells and preparing to shoot a mud fill into the well to stop the flow.

Mr. LAMAR MCKAY (Chairman, BP America): So, I would say we're not scrambling around. No, I cannot say there was a plan to hit all these different intervention methods, but those were triggered from day one, pretty much, to get going on all these parallel paths as quickly as we possibly can.

FESSLER: But lawmakers said they were frustrated that many of the steps being taken are untested, even though deepwater drilling's been around for years.

Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman complained that the government never required BP to produce a specific response plan and he criticized the agency that oversees offshore drilling, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, or MMS.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): For continuing to issue permits for deepwater drilling without demanding that the companies who receive those permits be prepared to deal with the effects of an accident or an explosion.

FESSLER: Indeed, the MMS has been criticized for being too cozy with oil executives, and failing to do enough to regulate the industry. On Monday, the agency's official in charge of offshore drilling, Chris Oynes, announced plans to retire by the end of the month.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also testified at yesterday's hearing. She agreed more needs to be done to figure out how to deal with such disasters in the future. But she said, for now, her agency, which includes the Coast Guard, is focused on stopping and containing damage from the spill.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): And keeping track of what we're spending, because ultimately the taxpayers shouldn't have to bear this cost.

FESSLER: She said there's no estimate yet of that cost but noted that BP has promised to pay the bill. McKay reaffirmed that pledge as well the company's promise to cover costs incurred by businesses and others hurt by the spill.

Mr. MCKAY: Starting this week, we will have in place an online claims filing system and our call center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have 12 walk-in claims offices open in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and we will open at least five more this week.

FESSLER: But those efforts are expected to win BP only so much good will. Yesterday, eight senators asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the company made false and misleading statements about its ability to respond to an oil spill in the Gulf, when it applied for a lease to drill there.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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