July 29, 2010
It was, for Tony Hayward and members of a powerful congressional committee investigating the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf, a mutually frustrating experience.
The much-awaited inquisition of the BP chief executive saw him resort yesterday to the favourite defence of corporate America when hauled up before committees of Congress: “I don’t recall.”
The strategy may have been legally prudent for Hayward, who was testifying under oath, but it did little to salvage the reputation of a man in the running for title of most reviled executive in America.
It also wiped out any goodwill which he may have generated by having started off his testimony with an apology.
Seven hours after the executive first walked into the wood-panelled room, the most significant admission the committee could wring out was that, maybe, someone at BP should have realised the drilling of the well was going horribly wrong.
“I think, in the light of what we now know, it is perhaps surprising someone didn’t say that they were concerned,” Hayward said. He also allowed that the well’s safety devices, such as the blow-out preventer, were “not as fail-safe as we had believed it to be”. Otherwise, the members of what is actually a sub-committee of the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee were repeatedly blocked when they tried to get Hayward to admit any personal and company responsibility for the catastrophe in the Gulf. Anger was palpable. “With all due respect, Mr Hayward, I think you’re copping out,” said Phil Gingrey, a Republican from Georgia. “You’re captain of the ship.” Henry Waxman, the energy and commerce committee chairman, accused Hayward of “kicking the can down the road”.
Oil protester on Capitol Hill A Capitol Hill police officer arrests a protester covered in oil who interrupted the congressional hearing. Photograph: Haraz N Ghanbari/AP
As the day wore on, committee members were even more withering in their attacks. Hayward was told he should quit, mocked for his $6m salary, and asked to consider whether a firm with a safety record like BP’s should be banned from America.
The discomfort multiplied when Hayward was made to watch a video of Natalie Roshto, widowed by the blowout on BP’s well, and reflect on a photo of a pelican struggling to escape globs of oil.
At times, Hayward suggested he was too preoccupied with his other duties as chief executive to follow the progress on the Macondo, which was already known in widening circles as a “nightmare well”.
“With respect sir, we drill hundreds of wells around the world,” he said.
“That’s what’s scaring me now,” replied Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican.
On other occasions, the former geologist disavowed his decades spent in the field for BP, saying he was not involved in, or lacked the technical knowledge of, the crucial decisions in managing the Macondo well. “I wasn’t part of the decision-making process on this well,” he said. “I am not a cement engineer.” The evasions, delivered in flat and impassive tones, infuriated committee members. “I am just amazed at this testimony,” one said. “You’re just kicking the can down the road like you have nothing to do with this.”
Members scoffed at Hayward’s claim that he had in his three years as chief executive been devoted to improving safety, pulling out press clippings from 2007 in which he complained of “excessive caution”, and having too many people in decision-making. He also got short shrift for saying he was “distraught” about what had happened, following a request by Waxman for a “yes or no” on whether Hayward had kept to an expressed commitment at his appointment to focus “like a laser” on safety. “I don’t want to know whether you’re distraught; I want to know whether you’ve kept your commitment.”
The anger was fuelled by what Waxman called an astonishing culture of “corporate complacency”. The committee reviewed 30,000 pages of documents from BP, but while it was widely known it had a “nightmare well” in the Deepwater Horizon, none of those concerns percolated up to Hayward. “We could find no evidence you paid any attention to the tremendous risks,” Waxman said.
Through the day, that was the theme. Members would read out emails from BP engineers pointing to a disaster waiting to unfold. There were emails acknowledging a problem on the well, and others suggesting BP gleefully over-rode those concerns. “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine,” said one email, which authorised a short-cut in positioning the well. “It appears to me BP knowingly risked well failure to save a few million dollars,” said Waxman. “Don’t you feel any responsibility for those decisions?”
Hayward replied: “I feel a great deal of responsibility for the accident.” But if the committee wanted further information on decisions to ignore warning signs, he would be of little help. “I can’t pass judgment on those decisions. I am not prepared to draw conclusions about this accident, until such time as this investigation is complete,” he said. “I simply was not involved in the decision-making process. I haven’t drawn a conclusion.”
There were moments of sympathy for Hayward, and even light relief.
Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said it was shameful BP had been compelled to agree to pay $20bn into an independently managed fund for victims of the spill. “I apologise,” he said. “I do not want to live in a country where every time a corporation does something wrong, it’s subject to a political process that amounts to a shakedown.” Hours later, however, Barton apologised for his apology.
Parker Griffin of Alabama, who recently switched from the Democratic to the Republican parties only to lose a primary election, suggested the devastation caused by the spill was as nothing against the dangers of cigarette smoking.
“The greatest environmental disaster in America is cigarettes: 60,000 Americans this year will die from cigarette-related diseases, so if we’re talking about the environment, let’s not leave that out.”
But the tone overwhelmingly was an anger Hayward failed to assuage and may even have inflamed. “When you operate on our land and in our waters, you are only there because the public trust allowed you to be there,” said Democrat Mike Doyle. “You violated that public trust.”
This article was amended on 18 June 2010. The original referred to Tony
Hayward’s $6bn salary. This has been corrected.