June 17, 2010 By JOHN M. BRODER
WASHINGTON — Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, facing relentless questioning by Congressional Democrats on Thursday, denied any personal responsibility for the decisions that led to the calamitous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
Peppered with questions over whether BP officials had cut corners to save time and money on the doomed Macondo well, Mr. Hayward repeatedly said he was not present on the drilling rig and had no advance knowledge of problems with what one company engineer called a “nightmare well” six days before it blew on April 20.
“I had no prior knowledge of the drilling of this well, none whatsoever,” he said.
He said he first heard of the well when BP exploration officials reported to him in early April that they had made a major find in the Mississippi Canyon region of the gulf. But, he said, he played no role in decisions on how the well was drilled and could not recall reading any of the numerous alarming reports about problems with finishing the well in the hours and days before it exploded.
And he steadfastly refused to draw any conclusion as to what caused the disaster or who was to blame, saying that would have to await the results of several investigations.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, theatrically accused Mr. Hayward of “stonewalling” the panel.
“I’m not stonewalling,” said Mr. Hayward, the 53-year-old Englishman. “I simply wasn’t involved in the decision-making.”
Mr. Hayward’s first appearance before Congress came a day after he and other senior BP executives met with President Obama at the White House and agreed to create a $20 billion escrow fund to pay damage claims from the rig disaster. BP’s chairman formally apologized for the death and destruction brought by the accident, an expression of regret that Mr. Hayward echoed in his opening statement.
“The explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico never should have happened — and I am deeply sorry that they did,” Mr. Hayward said.
As he began his testimony, the hearing of the oversight and investigations panel of the Energy and Commerce Committee produced some fireworks. A protester with hands stained with a dark substance was dragged from the hearing room shouting: “You need to be charged with a crime! You need to go to jail!”
A few minutes earlier, Representative Joe L. Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, touched off an uproar by referring to the president’s securing of the $20 billion damage fund as a “shakedown.”
Later in the day, facing heat from Democrats, the blogosphere and even members of his own party, Mr. Barton retracted most of his comments.
Under questioning from Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the investigations subcommittee, Mr. Hayward said it was too early to identify a cause or set of causes for the April 20 blowout.
“I think it’s too early to reach conclusions,” Mr. Hayward said. “The investigations are ongoing.”
He said, however, that BP was looking at a number of actions that may have contributed to the accident, including the cementing of the completed well, the casing system surrounding the well bore, the pressure testing and the procedures to detect explosive gas in the well. The company is also focusing on the performance of the blowout preventer and the systems intended to activate it that failed.
Mr. Hayward declined to directly answer Mr. Stupak’s question about whether companies with poor safety records should be allowed to continue operating in the United States. Mr. Hayward instead replied: “We’ve engaged in systematic change at BP over the past three years. We have begun to change the culture. I’m not denying there’s more to do.”
Mr. Waxman produced documents showing a debate among BP engineers on how to complete the well, with warnings that the plan to install a certain type of liner would increase the risk of a blowout and probably violate federal safety regulations.
“Clearly there was a discussion among the engineering team,” Mr. Hayward said. “Clearly an engineering judgment was taken.”
Under questioning from Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, Mr. Hayward said he had never heard of any of the numerous documented problems with the Macondo well.
“With respect, sir,” Mr. Hayward said, “we drill hundreds of wells a year around the world.”
Mr. Burgess said, “That’s what’s scaring me now.”
Several other members of the committee noted that on Tuesday the chief executives of four other major oil companies told the panel that they would not have drilled the well the way BP did. Pressed again to acknowledge that BP officials aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig had made errors or violated industry standards, Mr. Hayward again declined.
“I want to understand exactly what happened through our investigation and compare it to other practices to determine what is the truth,” he said. “I can’t comment beyond that.”
Near the end of the hearing, which went on more than seven hours (including two breaks to allow the lawmakers to cast votes), the strain of the often repetitive questioning began to show on Mr. Hayward. His answers became shorter and he spent longer periods staring at his hands.
He cast his eyes downward as Mr. Waxman, ever on the attack, returned to his charge, made many hours earlier, that Mr. Hayward was stonewalling the committee.
“You have consistently ducked and evaded our questions,” the scowling Mr. Waxman said. “Your evasion will make our job more difficult and impede our understanding of what went wrong. It is regrettable and an unfortunate approach for you to take to the work of this committee of Congress.”
Mr. Waxman did not wait for a reply.
John M. Broder reported from Washington, Liz Robbins from New York.