x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

BP chief struggles to clean up tarnished image in front of US politicians

Tony Hayward's apologies do not spare him tough questions and confrontational mood in grilling by congressmen in Washington.

WASHINGTON // BP's chastened CEO, Tony Hayward, apologised yesterday for the worst environmental disaster in US history amid fierce questioning and scathing criticism from a panel of US legislators. In an appearance before the House of Representative's energy and commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Mr Hayward said he was "deeply sorry" for the oil spill that has sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, sullied large swathes of US coastline, and threatened the livelihoods of thousands of Americans.

"I understand how serious this situation is. It is a tragedy," said Mr Hayward, who has struggled to strike the right tone since the crisis began with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, which killed 11 crewman. "I hear and understand the concerns, frustrations and anger being voiced across the country. And I know that these sentiments will continue until the leak has stopped and until we prove through our actions that we are doing the right thing."

Mr Hayward, the only witness at the hearing, cut a lonely figure as he appeared before the panel of stern-faced politicians. He sat expressionless as, one-by-one, the legislators attacked BP for ignoring warnings and safety precautions. As he began his remarks, a protester, with what appeared to be black oil on her hands and face, disrupted the hearing, yelling, "you need to be charged with a crime". The woman, later identified as Diane Wilson, a Texas shrimper and activist, was handcuffed by Capitol police and removed from the room.

Mr Hayward assured the panel that BP is doing all it can to stop the leak and said the company's ability to contain the spill is improving. BP expects to finish drilling two relief wells - which Mr Hayward referred to as "the ultimate solution" - by August. The company currently has the capacity to contain about 20,000 barrels of oil a day, short of the 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day that scientists believe are flowing into the gulf. "I've been to the gulf coast, I've met with fishermen, business owners and families. I understand what they're going through. And I promised them, as I am promising you, that we will make this right," Mr Hayward said.

His apology came a day after he and other BP executives met with President Barack Obama and agreed to establish a US$20 billion (Dh20bn) fund to pay damage claims. BP also said it would suspend shareholder dividends this year. Mr Hayward said the company has spent $1.5 billion in the eight weeks since the disaster, and vowed "no resources will be spared". Still, it was not enough to spare the embattled CEO the pointed questions of legislators whose confrontational mood reflects broader frustration across the country.

Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, faulted BP for ignoring the safety warnings of contractors and employees. "We could find no evidence that you paid any attention to the tremendous risks BP was taking...There is not a single e-mail or document that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well," said Mr Waxman, who, at one point, accused Mr Hayward of "stonewalling".

Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, reprimanded BP for its "low-ball" estimates of oil spillage, which he said may have led to a "scaled-back" response. Mr Stupak also made references to the insensitive comments uttered by BP officials in recent weeks, including those of chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, who said in an apology on Wednesday that the company cares about "the small people", and Mr Hayward's comment in May when he said, "I'd like my life back".

"We are not small people. But we wish to get our lives back," Mr Stupak told Mr Hayward. "I'm sure you'll get your life back, and with a golden parachute to England." The barrage of criticism came from members of both parties, as was expected for legislators facing elections in November. Polls show that a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the federal government's response to the disaster and want Washington to get tougher on BP.

Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said BP "has not learned from previous mistakes". John Sullivan, an Oklahoma Republican, asked Mr Hayward: "Why is BP's record on safety so spotty?" But Republicans also took the opportunity to criticise the Obama administration and Democrats for seeking to use the disaster as a catalyst to advance their legislative agenda. Mr Sullivan warned of a "knee-jerk legislative reaction from Congress" and said Democrats were "exploiting" the oil spill to move forward with their controversial energy policy.

Meanwhile, Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, referred to the $20 billion claims fund negotiated by the White House as a "shakedown" and a "tragedy". Mr Barton said he was "ashamed" by the fund and, turning the tables, offered an apology to BP. An analysis published by The Associated Press yesterday showed that Mr Barton had received more than $100,000 in political contributions from the oil and gas industry, the second most among legislators on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In response to Mr Barton's comment, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, issued a statement saying that Mr Barton "seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated". "Members from both parties should repudiate his comments," the statement said. @Email:sstanek@thenational.ae

Main editorial, page a15