New attacks were launched yesterday against BP and the other leading companies implicated in the April oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. A co-chairman of the presidential commission investigating the accident said they all suffered from a "culture of complacency" about safety.
"There was not a culture of safety on that rig," Bill Reilly said at the second day of hearings in Washington. The commission is investigating the chain of events leading up to the 20 April blast that killed 11 workers and set off a calamitous oil spill that lasted three months before the well was finally sealed. "BP, Halliburton and Transocean are in need of top-to-bottom reform, " Mr Reilly added.
Remarks from the panel's chief investigator, Fred Bartlit, on Monday suggesting that greed had not been a factor in the tragedy and that BP, contrary to the assertions of some Democratic members of Congress, had not cut corners to save money, sparked wonderment in some quarters yesterday, if not plain anger.
"Why cut corners if it is not for money?" said Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana that suffered the brunt of the blow-out.
"I really feel for the families of these 11 victims. Here they are hoping and praying that their loved ones lost would set some fundamental change... If we are gonna not be honest with everybody, including the American public, about what happened and why – then these people died in vain."
At the microphone on Monday, Mr Bartlit, a lawyer who helped President George Bush in the post-election battle for Florida in 2000, said he agreed with about 90 per cent of BP's own investigation into the accident, that sought to spread blame to Halliburton, the other principle engineering contractor and Transocean, the owner of the rig.
Most controversial, however, were Mr Bartlit's comments repudiating the allegations of cost-cutting. "To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favour dollars over safety," he told the hearing.
"They want to be efficient, and they don't want to waste money, but they don't want their buddies to get killed. And I've been on a lot of rigs... now, this is personal, but I don't believe people sit there and say, 'This is very dangerous, but the guys in London will make more money.'"
"Absolutely absurd," declared Daniel Becnel, a lawyer suing BP and others over the spill, upon hearing of Mr Bartlit's assessment.
"The reason is it so absurd is because BP is known to paste over safety, especially if it involved money and downtime. They couldn't afford any more downtime on that rig."
He added: "They are pasting over because they know the Government is going to be a defendant sooner or later."
The presidential commission will present its final report to the White House in January. It is seeking subpoena powers to oblige some key figures to testify, but some Republicans are objecting.
The main focus of its probe is the apparently faulty cementing process that was the responsibility primarily of Halliburton and the failure of engineers properly to heed warning signs from a key pressure test that was conducted just prior to the explosion.
The more critical comments from Mr Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, yesterday were echoed by another co-chairman of the panel, Bob Graham, an ex-US Senator from Florida. "There were a series of almost incredible failures in the days and hours leading up to the disaster," he told the hearing.
Mr Bartlit insists his panel needs subpoena powers particularly in helping to address the allegations being traded by the companies. "The disputes between Transocean and BP and Halliburton as to who said what when, and who has the responsibility for that, this is where subpoena power would be helpful," he said.
"It's hard to resolve that unless I can sit people down in a room and cross-examine them and find out what's believable and not believable."
Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who was among the most vocal critics of BP on Capitol Hill, issued a statement taking issue with Mr Bartlit's conclusion that greed played no part in the tragedy and recalling earlier accidents suffered by the oil giant.
"What is fully evident, from BP's pipeline spill in Alaska and the Texas city refinery disaster, to the Deepwater Horizon well failure, is that BP has a long and sordid history of cutting costs and pushing the limits in search of higher profits," he said.
President Obama has made it clear that he holds BP primarily responsible for the oil spill. In an address to the nation in May, Mr Obama said that "first and foremost" what led to the disaster was a "breakdown of responsibility" on the part of the oil giant and perhaps others. BP's own report sought to deflect sole blame saying that "multiple companies" were responsible for a series of errors and design faults that led to the blast. Of eight contributing factors it took the blame for "half of one," according to a member of a congressional panel investigating the spill.
Halliburton, a major contractor on the Deepwater Horizon rig, knew that cement it used on the project was unstable but went ahead anyway, according to the presidential commission. Shares in the company fell 16 per cent after last month's findings and bolstered BP's claims that it should share blame with its business partners.
BP's internal report also criticised employees of Transocean, the rig owner and operator, for missing warning signs 40 minutes before the explosion on 20 April. In turn, Transocean accused BP of producing a "self-serving" report designed to conceal its own failings.