A very public flogging for an embattled oil chief on Capitol Hill
Tony Hayward, the chief of the UK-based BP, attempted in vain yesterday to reassure members of the United States Congress of his commitment to safety, his competence and his determination to fix the mess in the Gulf of Mexico. Rather, he received a public excoriation that was ritualistic but unrelenting.
The unusual day was punctuated by repeated clashes between Mr Hayward and members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is taking the lead in investigating the calamitous blow-out at BP's deep-water well off the coast of Louisiana on 20 April.
None were chillier than its chairman, Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California who, like others on the committee, was intent on pressing Mr Hayward to concede that by ignoring successive red flags at the well and allegedly cutting corners on design and testing, BP had helped to create the conditions for the disaster that killed 11 men and set in train the worst environmental calamity America has ever seen.
It was an assertion, however, that Mr Hayward was not going to entertain, suggesting he would rather await the conclusions of all the investigations before speculation on what went wrong. As to what was happening at that particular well in the days before the accident, he had personally not been in the loop. “I had no prior knowledge or involvement in the drilling of this well,” he said.
“I think it's really too early to reach conclusions, with respect,” attempted Mr Hayward.
His hosts were looking for theatre, of course. They have audiences in their home constituencies.
“It's clear to me that you don't want to answer our questions,” Mr Waxman said. “I am just amazed at the testimony, Mr Hayward. You are not taking responsibility. You are kicking the can down the road as if you had nothing to do with these decisions. I find that irresponsible.”
On arriving in the chamber before the hearing's start, Mr Hayward did his best to look past the crush of cameras, and appear calm. But as the panel's members launched into opening statements, flickers of irritation seemed discernible. But the pain would not be quick in a hearing that, even before it opened, had been likened to a public flogging.
In their statements, committee members rehearsed their anger and indignation over the alleged misdeeds of his company even as they grappled with engineering terms they barely understood, like “long string of casing”, “liner and tie-back approach” and “casing hanger lock-down sleeve”.
They tried to hang Mr Hayward on his now-famous pledge on taking over as BP chief executive from Lord Browne in early 2007 that he would focus “like a laser” on improving the safety record of a company that had suffered successive disasters in the US.
Representative Bart Stupak, who was presiding over the session, put it to Mr Hayward that BP's record on safety was such that maybe it should be thrown out of the US. “Should there be a ban on companies with miserable safety and environmental records?” he asked.
Pushing back a bit — but never too much — Mr Hayward (52) defended his record on fulfilling his promise to focus on safety at BP. “We have begun to change the culture, I am not denying there is not more to do, but we have made dramatic changes,” he insisted.
Pushed by Mr Waxman on whether he had lived up to his promises on safety, Mr Hayward began to respond that it was because of that pledge that he felt especially distraught now. But he was not allowed to finish. “I don't want to know whether you are distraught, I want to know whether you have kept your commitment,” Mr Waxman said.
Mr Hayward was similarly derailed when he rose to his feet to swear to tell the whole truth before reading an opening statement. This time a sole woman protester was the cause of the disruption. “You need to be tarred with a brush,” she shouted.
“We will not rest until we make this right,” Mr Hayward read from the statement that had been released in advance to the media throngs in the committee room.
“People lost their lives, others were injured, and the Gulf Coast environment and communities are suffering.
“This is unacceptable, I understand that, and let me be very clear: I fully grasp the terrible reality of the situation.”