WASHINGTON—Everybody attending the U.S. House oversight hearing Thursday fully expected to hear a requisite apology from BP chief executive Tony Hayward—which he delivered in perfunctory fashion.
What caught the crowd off guard was the apology Rep. Joe Barton extended directly to Hayward during his opening remarks.
“I am ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” the Texas Republican told Hayward as a murmur swept through the gallery. “I apologize.”
It is “a tragedy in the first proportion” to subject a private company to a $20 billion “shakedown,” Barton said, adding that such a “slush fund” sets a terrible precedent. Pushing for such a fund was unfair when the Department of Justice is carrying out an investigation of the oil company that could lead to criminal charges.
By the end of the day, Republican leaders in Congress would issue a statement distancing themselves from Barton’s rogue apology, but not before it became as much of a national story as the grilling of Tony Hayward.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. soonafter countered Barton, that the $20 billion compensation fund BP agreed to establish is neither a shakedown nor a slush fund.
“It was the government of the United States working to protect the most vulnerable citizens we have in our country right now—the residents of the Gulf.
“It is BP’s spill but America’s ocean,” Markey continued. “(This) is in fact President Obama ensuring that the company that despoiled our waters is made accountable.”
Cynics might dismiss such hearings—this one featured oversight and investigations, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—as ritualistic congressional tongue-lashings or unvarnished grandstanding. But those who track congressional oversight hearings insist that such political theater is absolutely necessary, a cathartic release for politicians and the public.
“Congressional hearings can create iconic moments for this country,” Matt Kirby, a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club’s land protection program, told Solve Climate in a post-hearing interview. He added that they’ve put topics such as the tobacco industry, McCarthyism and now Big Oil in a harsh spotlight.
“Yes it is grandstanding but it’s against a figure who embodies a lot of anger and resentment,” Kirby said about the opportunity to target Hayward. “These are opportunities for representatives and senators to get themselves on the record and push people in the direction they want them to go. They are heavily covered by the media and often create a record that will lead to regulatory reform.”
And, unscripted comments such as those made by Barton, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, undoubtedly give environmentalists more fodder in their uphill undertaking to wean the country of oil.
Except for Barton’s mea culpa and an outburst by a Code Pink protester, the lengthy energy and commerce hearing on Day 59 of ecological devastation in the Gulf of Mexico lacked much oomph.
It might have had more punch if President Obama hadn’t “stolen” the committee’s thunder Wednesday by securing agreement from BP to put $20 billion into a trust fund for reimbursing businesses and residents for economic damages.
BP will also start a $100 million fund for oil rig workers left unemployed by the temporary moratorium
on offshore drilling.
The fund’s independent overseer is Kenneth Feinberg, best known as the attorney who handled the victim compensation fund for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He has also been assigned other difficult tasks such as taking on the “pay czar” title as the go-to man for setting executive salaries at financial institutions and car manufacturers that the government bailed out during the recession.
Hayward’s apology to the committee was delayed slightly when a female protester in the back row of the hearing room stood up and yelled, “You need to be charged with a crime!” several times. Police hustled the distressed woman out of the room. Before the hearing began, the woman was holding a small handmade sign displaying the letters BP with a black slash through it. Her hands were coated in a black paint-like substance evidently intended to resemble oil.
She stood next to two other women who protested silently. One carried a sign reading “Crude Awakening: End Offshore Drilling” and the other carried a cardboard cutout of a fish with the word “Help” written on it.
“I understand that only action and results, and not mere, words, ultimately can give you the confidence you seek,” said Hayward, reading solemnly from 11 pages of prepared remarks about how BP is handling the millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf. “We will be, and deserve to be, judged by our response.
“I give my pledge as leader of BP that we will not rest until we stop this well, mitigate the environmental impact of the spill and address economic claims in a responsible manner. No resource available to this company can be spared.”
Lack of Answers Frustrate Representatives
Hayward, dressed in a dark suit, dark red tie and crisp white shirt, entered the hearing room with a handful of handlers five minutes before the hearing began. The hum of camera motor drives maneuvered by dozens of photographers gathered around the witness table was so loud that it sounded like the muted rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire.
At one point, subcommittee chairman Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., had to ask Hayward to speak up so he could be heard over the mechanical din.
In the afternoon question phase of the hearing, Stupak and several other representatives—including committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.—became frustrated with Hayward’s refusal to respond to their direct questions.
Despite numerous attempts to gain information about what caused the Macondo well to fail, Hayward, trained as a geologist, told them it would be best to wait for the results of the ongoing investigation.
Earlier in the week, Waxman and Stupak laid out plenty of new revelations of their own in a 14-page letter to the oil company that questioned risky engineering decisions BP evidently made before workers attempted to cap the well. They asked Hayward to be prepared to answer technical questions about centralizers and cement.
But Hayward wouldn’t—or couldn’t—offer any specifics.
“BP cut corner after corner to save a million dollars here and a few hours or days there,” Waxman told Hayward Thursday. “And now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price.”
Conservationists See Opening for Clean Energy
It didn’t take but minutes for Barton’s apology to BP to start rippling and reverberating across political Washington. Though he evidently tried to backpedal from his initial statements, the Obama administration cut him little slack.
Insensitive and out of touch is how Vice President Joe Biden categorized Barton’s comments. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement shortly after Barton told BP he was sorry.
“What is shameful is that Joe 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 by the destruction,” the statement from Gibbs said.
“Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy,’ but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments.”
For the Sierra Club’s Kirby, Barton’s words and intensive questioning by Democrats and Republicans offer a rallying cry for a slow-to-gain-traction energy revolution.
Having both parties asking why the oil industry failed to shut down the Macondo well offers a big moment for the public to question the soundness of offshore drilling, Kirby said. Answers to those questions help legislators craft policy and reforms.
In this case, most environmental organizations see the dozens of hearings centered on the worsening ecological disaster in the Gulf as a no-brainer opening for the clean energy movement.
“The Barton apology will be a sound bite that could hurt the Republicans a lot,” Kirby said, referring to the comment by the “And that does not hurt the clean energy cause at all.”