House Panel Grills Oil Executives Over Safety Plans The largest oil companies have nearly identical plans to the one that did not work in the Deepwater Horizon spill, down to identical phrases and references to protecting animals that don't live in the Gulf of Mexico, House members complained at a hearing Tuesday.
NPR logo House Panel Grills Oil Executives Over Safety Plans

House Panel Grills Oil Executives Over Safety Plans

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

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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.

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.