WASHINGTON — Sitting alone at a table, BP's Tony Hayward on Thursday bore the bipartisan brunt of a livid congressional panel seeking to affix corporate greed and corner-cutting aboard an oil rig as the cause of 11 deaths and the ruin of an ecosystem and a way of life in the Gulf of Mexico.
It didn't begin well for the 53-old chief executive of one of the world's largest and most profitable corporations, who was just minutes into his opening remarks when he was interrupted by a protester who held up black-painted hands and shouted: "You ought to be charged with a crime!"
Hayward began with an apology, telling the investigative subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the accident "never should have happened — and I am deeply sorry that it did."
"When I learned that 11 men had lost their lives, I was personally devastated," he said,
Hayward stayed cool and spoke softly throughout the hearing, but was on the defensive as the tone of the hearing grew more accusatory and members of the House panel began asking detailed and heated questions about the design of the company's oil well and the faulty decisions BP engineers and managers made about keeping it under control.
As the hearing proceeded, he was unable — and occasionally, unwilling — to answer those questions. When asked whether he would characterize any of the decisions made aboard the rig as "bad," Hayward wouldn't say.
"As I've said often today, I'm not prepared to point today with a half-complete investigation, as to what was and what was not a bad decision," he said. "I'm not able to draw that conclusion at this time."
However, Hayward did tell the committee that the top people on the rig — including those from the rig operator, Transocean — had to agree about all decisions, and any one individual could stop operations at any time for safety. One of the questions Transocean needs to answer, Hayward said, is what led the crew to move forward in the light of conflicting pressure test results and other problems.
"I think, in the light of what we now know, it is, of course, surprising that someone didn't say that they were concerned," Hayward said. "And I think that is to the heart of the investigation, to understand exactly what the events were and why there was not different decisions taken with respect to the events, particularly in the last five or six hours on the day of the incident."
He also told the panel that their investigation has shown the current design of the blowout preventers used on deepwater exploratory wells "is not as failsafe as we need it to be."
"I think that is a very important lesson the industry needs to grasp along with the relevant regulatory agencies," he said.
Most questions elicited far less detailed responses — "I can't answer that question because I wasn't there," Hayward said early in the hearing, adding a few minutes later, "that was a decision I was not party to," "I don't know," and "I'm afraid I don't know that either."
Hayward's lack of candor drew a rebuke from the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. The evasive answers only increase the frustration of Congress and the American people, Stupak warned him several times.
Earlier this week, the committee's investigators released findings that show there were multiple points the company could have prevented an explosion. The include the company's uncommon well design, the company's decision not to circulate drilling mud that could have cleared out pockets of gas and the failure to undertake critical testing that could have pinpointed problems with its cementing.
Instead, the company violated industry guidelines and proceeded despite warnings from its own employees and its contractors, Stupak said.
"Quite frankly, BP blew it," Stupak said. "You cut corners to save costs."
Throughout the hearing, Hayward said his company has recommitted to a culture of safety since a 2007 oil spill on Alaska's North Slope and a 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 people and injured 170. Under his stewardship, Hayward said, they devoted billions of dollars, hired thousands of new people, and addressed safety and organizational deficiencies.
"I'm not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision making," Hayward said when asked whether he agreed with the committee's findings that BP had repeatedly ignored warnings about the safety of their Gulf of Mexico well to save money and move quickly to finish drilling.
If BP's internal investigation suggested "that anytime anyone put cost before safety," Hayward said, "then we will take action," he said.
To his knowledge, there was no evidence that anyone did so, he said _ an assertion questioned by Democrats and Republicans alike.
The company's continued violations of federal workplace safety standards don't bear that out, said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. He was echoed by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
"It's not the first time that you've been before this committee on safety problems," Blackburn said, referring to the committee's investigations of the Texas refinery explosion and Alaska oil spill. "And it is concerning to us that the appearance is, Mr. Hayward, that BP has not learned from previous mistakes. So it leads to us asking the questions of you and of BP. Was this accident caused by negligence? Was it caused by risk-taking? Was it caused by cost-cutting measures by BP decision-makers?"
The committee reviewed more than 30,000 documents as part of its investigation, including Hayward's e-mails, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif, the chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee.
There was no evidence that Hayward or other top executives overseeing exploration and U.S. operations were aware of the problems on the well, a lack of knowledge Waxman described as an astonishing example of corporate complacency given Hayward's pledge when becoming CEO of the company to focus "like a laser on safe and reliable operations."
"We could find no evidence that you paid any attention to the tremendous risks BP was taking," Waxman said. "There is not a single e-mail or document that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well."
In fact, Hayward told Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, that the well didn't come to his attention until April when he was told it was a potential discovery.
"With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year all around the world," Hayward said.
"Yes, I know," Burgess said. "That's what's scaring me right now."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter
McClatchy Newspapers 2010