Chastened by heavy criticism, a grim-faced BP chief executive Tony Hayward insisted Thursday he was "devastated with this accident" in the Gulf of Mexico and denied shunning tough questions from Congress on the nation's worst oil spill.
"I'm not stonewalling," Hayward told a House investigations subcommittee, responding to repeated suggestions that he was dodging questions.
Hayward said he was "deeply sorry" for the spill gushing now for more than eight weeks. "I understand the seriousness of the situation, the frustrations and fears that continue to be voiced," he said.
Even before he began testifying, Hayward had to endure more than an hour of mostly unrelenting criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.
"We are not small people, but we wish to get our lives back," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the subcommittee chairman, told Hayward, throwing back at the oil giant comments made the day before by BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg — about how BP sympathized with the "small people" of the Gulf — and Hayward's earlier remark that he wanted his "life back."
Later, Hayward appeared unflappable during a tense exchange with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. Speaking slowly and calmly in his clipped British accent, he sought to deflect accusations — based on internal BP documents obtained by congressional investigators — that BP chose a particular well design that was riskier but cheaper by $7 million to $10 million.
Hayward repeatedly said that he didn't make those design choices as CEO. "I'm not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process," Hayward told Waxman, adding that the well's engineering team clearly grappled with such issues.
"What's clear to me," Waxman interrupted, "is that you don't want to answer our questions."
"You're not taking responsibility," the congressman added. "You're kicking the can down the road and acting like you have nothing to do with ... this company. I find that irresponsible."
Waxman told the BP executive that in his committee's review of 30,000 items, there was "not a single e-mail or document that you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well."
A day after BP agreed to pay for a $20 billion victims' compensation fund, Hayward said under oath to lawmakers that "I feel a great deal of responsibility" for the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that triggered the giant spill.
"The fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon never should have happened," Hayward said. And, while "we need to know what went wrong" Hayward also said that it was still "too early to say what caused the incident. There is still extensive work to do."
As he began to testify, a protester disrupted the hearing and had to be forcibly removed from the room by Capitol police. The woman was identified as Diane Wilson, 61, a fisherman from Seadrift, Texas, near the Gulf Coast. Her hands stained black, she shouted to Hayward from the back of the room: "You need to be charged with a crime." She was grabbed by Capitol police and taken from the room.
While most of the opening statements by members contained harsh criticisms of BP, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, turned the tables and apologized to BP, accusing the White House of conducting a "$20 billion shakedown" by requiring BP to establish the fund to compensate those hurt by the spill.
"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House" on Wednesday, said Barton, who has received at least $100,470 in political contributions from oil and gas interests since the beginning of 2009, the second-highest amount among all the committee members.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded: "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 $20 billion fund was finalized during a four-hour meeting at the White House on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama and other White House officials did not question BP leaders about those shortcuts during that meeting, administration officials said Thursday.
That's because the session was focused on finalizing the damages fund, not on the investigation of what went wrong, Carol Browner, Obama's top energy adviser, told The Associated Press. Obama has set up an independent commission to investigate the oil spill disaster.
Internal BP documents show the company made a series of moneysaving shortcuts that dramatically increased the risks of danger on the deepsea rig.
Stupak, the subcommittee chairman, noted that over the past five years, 26 had died and 700 were injured in BP accidents — including the Gulf spill, a pipeline spill in Alaska and a refinery explosion in Texas. Shouldn't the government ban drilling by companies with such "poor safety records?"
Hayward sidestepped the question but insisted safety had always been his top priority and "that is why I am so devastated with this accident." When he became CEO, Hayward said he would focus "like a laser" on safety, a phrase he repeated on Thursday.
But Stupak suggested BP had "cut corners" instead of focusing on safety.
Meanwhile, a rig drilling a relief well meant to help plug the gushing blown-out well is ahead of schedule and could reach its target over the next three to four weeks, said 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 in the next few weeks.
He also said that the final push of drilling is the most difficult. The relief 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.
At the hearing on the Hill, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, played a heart-wrenching video from a committee session on the Gulf Coast in which two widows whose husbands were killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion suggested that BP had put profits before safety. "They are the symbols and the faces of this disaster," Braley said.
Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, said that BP "appears to have taken their eye off the ball."
He expressed surprise at Hayward's claim that he didn't know anything about the well in question, including safety issues that had been raised internally, until he was told in April that drilling had confirmed an oil discovery.
"But you're the CEO of the company," Burgess said. "With due respect," shot back Hayward, "We drill handreds of wells around the world."
"Yeah, that's what scares me right now," said Burgess.
Hayward received $4.7 million in 2009 in total salary, performance bonus and other non-cash compensation, roughly 27 percent higher than the $3.7 million he received a year earlier, according to an AP review of filings available on BP's Web site
Hayward sipped a beverage and jotted notes as one lawmaker after another scorched him.
But Rep. Parker Griffith, R-Ala., a retired oncologist, offered some counterpoint. He suggested that cigarette smoking, not the BP oil spill, was the nation's worst environmental disaster.
"This is not going to be the worst thing that's ever happened to America," Griffith said.
As of Thursday morning, the BP well has gushed between 66 million and 120 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, based on government daily spill rate figures.
Meanwhile, newly disclosed documents obtained by the AP 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 — far more than the company had said publicly until this week, when the government released its own worst-case estimate of about that amount.
The undated estimate by BP, apparently made sometime last month, reflected the actual situation as it was understood by BP at the time, said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which is also probing the spill.
"Certainly Americans have a right to know that BP made these estimates, the date these estimates were determined and why they were not disclosed at that time," Grassley said.