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Congress slams BP chief; GOP rep. apologizes

June 17, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Channeling the nation's anger, lawmakers pilloried BP's boss in a withering day of judgment Thursday for the oil company at the center of the Gulf calamity. Unflinching, BP chief executive Tony Hayward said he was out of the loop on decisions at the well and coolly asserted, "I'm not stonewalling."

That infuriated members of Congress even more, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Testifying as oil still surged into the Gulf of Mexico, Hayward declared "I am so devastated with this accident," "deeply sorry" and "so distraught."

Yet the oil man disclaimed knowledge of any of the myriad problems on and under the Deepwater Horizon rig before the deadly explosion, telling a congressional hearing he had only heard about the well earlier in April, the month of the accident.

"With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year around the world," Hayward told Republican Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas.

"Yes, I know," Burgess shot back. "That's what scaring me right now."

"BP blew it," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House investigations panel that held the hearing. "You cut corners to save money and time."

The verbal onslaught had been anticipated for days and unfolded at a nearly relentless pace.

But in a jarring departure that caught fellow Republicans by surprise, Texas Rep. Joe Barton, top GOP member of the panel and the House's top recipient of oil industry campaign contributions since 1990, used his opening statement to apologize - twice - for the pressure put on the company by President Barack Obama to contribute to a compensation fund for people in the afflicted Gulf of Mexico states.

Barton said the U.S. has "a due process system" to assess such damages, and he decried the $20 billion fund that BP agreed to Wednesday at the White House as a "shakedown" and "slush fund."

He told Hayward, "I'm not speaking for anybody else. But I apologize."

He later retracted his apologies to BP, then apologized anew - this time for calling the fund a "shakedown." "BP should bear the full financial responsibility for the accident," he said, and "fully compensate those families and businesses that have been hurt by this accident."

The notion of an American lawmaker apologizing to a foreign head of a corporation that had caused great hardships for millions of Gulf Coast residents incited rare Republican-on-Republican rage.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., became the first in his party to demand that Barton be stripped of his seniority. During a House vote later in the day, other Republicans pressed their leaders for Barton's punishment.

By midafternoon, Barton was back on the dais with a statement that was something short of what the leaders had demanded.

"I want the record to be absolutely clear that I think BP is responsible for this accident," he said. "If anything I said this morning has been misconstrued, in opposite effect, I want toapologize for that misconstruction."

Latest Developments:

  • Meanwhile, a rig drilling a relief well meant to stanch the gushing flow of oil into the Gulf is ahead of schedule and could reach its target over the next three to four weeks, reported Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, Obama's point man on the spill response. Allen said Thursday that a drill from a rig near the ruptured well is nearly 10,000 feet below the seafloor and should come within 10 feet of the existing well within the next few weeks.
  • He also said that the final push of drilling is the most difficult. The drilling was originally slated for completion in mid-August. Once the drill reaches its target, BP will pump heavy mud down the relief well in an attempt to stop the flow.
  • Newly disclosed documents show that after the Deepwater Horizon sank, BP made a worst-case estimate of 2.5 million gallons a day flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. That figure is far higher than the company had said publicly until this week, when the government released its own worst-case estimate of about that amount.

  • As of Thursday morning, the BP well has gushed between 66 million and 120 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, based on government daily spill rate figures.

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