Oil Execs Testify Before Congress…Technically May 11, 2010Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: 2010 Oil Spill, BP, cantwell, Congress, Deepwater Horizon, EPA, Gulf of Mexico, Halliburton, ixtoc, landrieu, menendez, Montara, murkowski, Offshore Drilling, Oil, Oil Spill, Senate, sessions, testimony, Transocean
In case you didn’t have the pleasure of watching executives from BP, Halliburton and Transocean testify before Congress Tuesday afternoon, I have compiled some highlights and thoughts below.
The testimony in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources was revealing in how little it revealed. If we are to learn from and respond to this tragic event, people will have to start changing their tunes. As of today, they have not. I mean that in respect to both the oil executives and many of our U.S. senators. We’ll do the Big Oil execs first, then get into the senators.
First, the Big Oil execs:
If you have watched this kind of congressional testimony before, you know it is the world’s most boring dance. Senators ask questions, and those testifying carefully choose their words to convey as little as possible – or claim memory loss. Sometimes a senator will pursue an answer, but rarely does that actually extract the desired truth.
The only questions Big Oil actually answered today were those that Google could just have easily have answered, such as “is your company the largest offshore drilling contractor?”
Corporate legal teams carefully prep their executives to legally dodge the most damning questions. That preparation, which largely defeats the purpose of these hearings, was on notable display twice this afternoon.
For over a week now, BP has said it is prepared to pay “all legitimate claims.” They’ve been talking a big game about how they plan to repay their victims.
Conveniently, BP has yet to define exactly what claims it considers “legitimate.” They are unlikely to do so until they are taken to court. In his testimony, when pressed on this question, BP America President Lamar McKay did nothing but repeat that deliberately ambiguous phrase.
When general prodding from several senators went unanswered, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) finally tried to hold BP accountable. She went down a list of likely claims against BP. McKay’s response was the same nearly every time: “all legitimate claims.”
“1) Shrimpers who can’t earn their livelihoods?”
“We will pay all legitimate claims.”
“2) Beaches spoiled, tourism ruined?”
“All legitimate claims.”
“3) Children sickened by oil fumes?”
“All legitimate claims.”
To top it off, McKay had the gall to follow up this laughable interaction with a preposterous assurance: “this is not about legal words, it’s about getting it done and getting it done right.” No, sir, this is PRECISELY about legal words. Please refrain from lying under oath, Mr. McKay. It’s frowned upon.
The second most odious exchange of the hearing was when Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman was asked if this type of spill had happened before. He replied that the only incident he could recall was the Ixtoc spill. To his credit, that spill was the worst of this type, but this answer is incredibly deceitful.
You’re trying to tell me that that Steven Newman, presumably a lifelong oilman, the president and CEO of an offshore drilling company that specializes in deepwater drilling, has to go back 31 years to recall an incident like this one? I’ve never worked in the oil industry and even I know that THIS TYPE OF SPILL HAPPENED 8 MONTHS AGO (Halliburton is suspected to have caused that one too)! In fact, even the photographers in that hearing room knew about the Montara spill: Sen. Menendez brought it up earlier in this very hearing!
Note that the response was deliberately and delicately phrased (“the only incident I can recall“) so as to avoid committing perjury.
Even as oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the oil industry and their congressional allies are STILL trying to cast offshore drilling as a safe practice. This spill was not unconceivable and not unprecedented. Senators and oil executives repeatedly called this accident “unique.” The only thing unique about this oil well was that it was in even deeper water and even deeper underground than usual, so all the real risks associated with drilling and the complications of containment and cleanup for spills were MAGNIFIED!
It is also worth mentioning the conduct of the senators present:
The oil executives weren’t the only ones choosing their words carefully. When I tuned in, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) had the microphone. She was going to great lengths to avoid saying the words “oil” or “spill.” She even referred to the Exxon Valdez “incident.” This type of disingenuous wordplay is normally reserved for company spokespeople. Sadly, this is par for the Murky course.
Murkowski is often derisively labeled as (R-OIL) because of her industry ties. It is her “dirty air” amendment in the Senate that is attempting to strip the EPA of its authority (and indeed Supreme Court-issued mandate) to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. It came as little surprise when news broke early this year that the amendment had not been written by the senator’s staff but rather by oil industry lobbyists themselves. She was merely their mouthpiece. The things money can buy.
In her opening statement, Murkowski, the ranking minority member of the committee, explained why we need domestic oil drilling: “for the sake of our nation’s economy, for the sake of our national security, and this incident not withstanding, for the sake of our world’s environment.” The economic and national security impacts of domestic offshore drilling have long been shown to be literally negligible, but I am genuinely curious to hear how this congressional oil flack would spin drilling as anything short of toxic for “our world’s environment.” Too bad Murkowski wasn’t under oath too.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) also took the opportunity to extol the virtues of domestic offshore drilling. I would tell you more about his questioning, but I really don’t think I could. When he had the microphone, I almost felt sorry for the industry executives; he never really put together a coherent sentence. The inflection in his voice was raised when he stopped talking, and he clearly expected them to respond, but I didn’t even understand what he expected of them. How fortunate, then, that the executives were coached not to give actual answers anyways.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was talking tough for her state. She is in a fierce primary against a much more liberal opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. But all her barking is election-year antics. No congressperson receives more money from the oil industry than Landrieu, and she continues to push the lie that offshore drilling is vital to our country – even as oil begins to wash up on Louisiana beaches. Her priority is making sure BP pays her voters quickly enough that she will be reelected to continue to act against our country’s best interests.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) were on point and champions. They asked piercing questions and did their best to take the executives to task and get actual answers. Yet there is only so much one can do within this broken system.
Having watched some testimony before, I know that these proceedings were not that unusual. To me, this is not a defense of what transpired today but rather more proof that business as usual must change if we to move forward as a country, both in the context of this tragedy and more broadly. Congress is an inertial body, but a catastrophe of this magnitude demands action.
Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.