House Panel Grills Oil Executives Over Safety Plans

Oil company executives are sworn in for a hearing Tuesday before a House committee hearing

From left: Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil; and Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America are sworn in for a hearing Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Major oil company executives were grilled by a House panel Tuesday, with congressmen railing against what they said was the industry's "cookie cutter" preparations for disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Executives from BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, where they faced harsh questioning in the wake of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that has leaked millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

"For years, the oil industry swore this could never happen," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), the subcommittee chairman. "We were told that technology had advanced, that offshore drilling was safe."

"BP said they didn't think the rig would sink. It did. They said they could handle an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every day. They couldn't. BP said the spill was 1,000 barrels per day. It wasn't, and they knew it," Markey told the panel.

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    A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
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    Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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    Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
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    Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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    A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
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    President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
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    Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
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    A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
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    A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
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    Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
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    A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
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    Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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    Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
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    Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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    President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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    A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
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    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
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    The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
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    A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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    Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
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    Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La. The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
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    Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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    An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
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    A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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    Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
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    A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
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    Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
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    The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
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    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
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    BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
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    This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
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    President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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    Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
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    Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
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    In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
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    Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
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Markey and Sen. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said the oil spill response plans of the five companies contained nearly identical language to the BP plan, which has been criticized for being inadequate to meet a worst-case scenario.

"These five companies have response plans that are virtually identical. ... In some cases, their response plans use the exact same words," Markey charged, saying the American public deserves a plan that "is ironclad, not boilerplate."

He noted that two plans list the phone number for the same dead expert, and three include references to protecting walruses — which don't live in the Gulf.

Waxman called them "cookie-cutter plans" and said the companies were as unprepared as BP was to respond to a spill.

Another panel member, Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, noted that ExxonMobil's emergency response plan contained 13 pre-drafted news releases that "meticulously anticipated" nearly every public relations problem and devoted "far less attention to a possible spill."

The heads of the oil industry expressed contrition but defended the need to drill.

"We must learn from this accident and make sure it never happens again," Chevron CEO John Watson said.

"We welcome any new standard that will improve safety," he said.

BP America Chairman Lamar McKay defended the need to drill, telling the panel that despite the catastrophic spill, the U.S. must have oil from the Gulf of Mexico.

America's economy, security and standard of living "significantly depend upon domestic oil and gas production," McKay said. He said companies have operated in the Gulf safely and reliably.

McKay warned that reducing energy production without consumption would shift jobs offshore — and put millions of additional barrels onto tanker ships that travel across oceans.

Republicans, such as Texas Rep. Joe Barton, expressed anger that the spill had not been capped, but defended the need for offshore drilling.

Barton lashed out at the White House for its criticism of BP, saying if President Obama "has a better idea of how to solve this problem, he can pick up the phone right now and call BP."

Barton said it doesn't work that way because "the laws of nature and the laws of physics do not respond to 30-second sound bites."

He said the industry would learn from the Gulf disaster and develop an effective plan. The oil executives assembled on Tuesday "have the wherewithal and certainly have the incentive to put that plan together," Barton said.

Meanwhile, the White House was poised to seize the handling of oil spill damage claims from BP, Obama's chief spokesman said Tuesday, as Obama prepared to outline his specific plans and expectations in a prime-time Oval Office speech Tuesday night.

The aim of wresting the claims-handling from the British petroleum giant, press secretary Robert Gibbs said, would be to make economically distressed individuals and businesses "whole."

The claims processing problem is among several difficult issues that Obama planned to address directly in the talk to the nation.

Gibbs was interviewed on several network morning news shows, including NPR's Morning Edition, as Obama prepared for a second day of briefings on the disaster — this time in Florida. He was to fly back to Washington for the 8 p.m. address from the Oval Office.

On the matter of the disputed damage payments, Gibbs said, "We have to get an independent claims process. I think everyone agrees that we have to get BP out of the claims processes and, as I said, make sure that fishermen, hotel owners have a fast, efficient and transparent claims process so that they're getting their livelihoods replaced."

BP said a fire Tuesday aboard the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise Tuesday morning that was believed caused by lightning had shut down a system for capturing the oil being spilled from the undersea rupture.

The fire was quickly extinguished and the capture operation was expected to resume later Tuesday, the company said.

Contributing: NPR's Scott Neuman and The Associated Press.

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