Fifty-one days after oil began gushing out of the ocean floor and into the Gulf of Mexico, Congress has extended a request that, in political parlance, is more of a demand: that Tony Hayward, the much maligned CEO of British Petroleum (BP), play question-and-answer before the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee June 17 on Capitol Hill.
The request is a terse, three-paragraph letter addressed to Hayward and signed by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-California) and Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), who chair the Committee on Energy and Commerce and its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The invitation is relatively opaque, providing the time and location of the hearing and advising Hayward that the committee may have some questions of a technical nature.
This seemingly rote invitation dovetails with a similar request from the chairmen – also dated June 8 – to John Bresland, chairman of the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the group that investigated two previous BP incidents: a 2006 leak in a BP pipeline which poured about 200,000 gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, and an explosion at the Texas City Oil Refinery in 2005, also owned by BP, in which 15 workers were killed.
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Unlike the letter to Hayward, the note to the CSB’s Bresland gets down to brass tacks. Among Waxman and Stupak’s questions: Did BP put money before safety? Was the company invested in its safety culture? Did BP provided adequate contractor oversight?
Key to questions included in the letter to Bresland were ones that asked whether BP failed to apply lessons learned from 2005. In that investigation, the CSB leveled blame at BP’s corner offices for permitting financial pressures to overwhelm safety measures and failure to verify the effectiveness of major accident hazard prevention programs.
The CSB, noting its small size and current obligations, has not refused to begin an investigation, but has not committed to one either. A note from Bresland on the CSB’s web site said the board will provide as much help as it can in the interim and will make a decision regarding the investigation this week.
The current crisis began April 20, with an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, 50 miles off of the Louisiana coast. The oil rig is operated by Switzerland-based Transocean Ltd, which bills itself as the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor. A second explosion, on April 24, sank it.
Attempts to contain the spill and stop the damage have included drilling relief wells, using skimmers, cramming items down the gaping hole in attempt to clog it and using chemical dispersants to break up the oil spill. The most recent undertaking – a “top hat,” which has been in place for six days, has had relative success: according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as of June 8, the device has managed to capture 14,842 barrels of oil. Despite the capture, NOAA’s report is measured in its enthusiasm, noting, “This is only a portion of the total amount of oil leaking from the riser.”
Meanwhile, CEO Hayward has been marked by some as a public relations disaster, for missteps that include objecting to the way in which the spill has taken over his life, to declaring the damage to be exaggerated and underestimating just how much oil is actually flowing out of the well.
Since then, Hayward and BP have honed in on three key points, iterated in a June 4 investor briefing and again in a June 5 appearance on the “Andrew Marr Show” in Britain: that BP will stop the leak and will not walk away from coastal communities and will pay “all legitimate claims.” In his television interview on June 5 Hayward said, “We are going to return the Gulf Coast to the position it was in prior to this event, adding, “we will be there long after the media is gone.”
Meanwhile, oil continues to flow outwardly. According to the energy subcommittee, Hayward, via a representative, has agreed to appear before Congress on June 17.