BP boss plumbs depths of contrition. But his critics are unimpressed

Tony Hayward was grilled relentlessly by US congressmen over the Gulf catastrophe. David Usborne watched the drama unfold

Tony Hayward, the chief executive of 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 – even by Capitol Hill standards – 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. They said he was evasive, ducking responsibility and – worse still – not being honest with the American people.

None was 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 the well in the days before the accident, he had not been in the loop. "I had no prior knowledge or involvement in the drilling of this well," he quietly informed them.

"I think it's really too early to reach conclusions, with respect," attempted Mr Hayward, whose only consolation as the lone witness of the day was occasional sips from a cup of water. It surely doesn't help him that an oil-man from central casting he is not. To an American ear, his soft manner of talking sounds more like diffidence than determination.

His hosts were looking for theatre, of course. They have audiences in their home constituencies. But they did get very irritated very quickly. "Any one of us could do his job," one Congressman blurted caustically as members shuffled out of their seats at the start of one of two recesses.

"It's clear to me that you don't want to answer our questions," Mr Waxman declared in a burst of exasperation. "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."

Mr Hayward was repeatedly accused of "evasiveness," a lack of candour and a lack of substance in his answers. In hours of testimony, he only asked his technical expert for advice. And then he responded that he still could not help.

On arriving in the chamber before the hearing's start, mild-mannered Mr Hayward did his best to look past the crush of cameras, to appear calm and to settle his features into the contours of contrition.

But as the panel's members launched into opening statements, flickers of irritation seemed discernible and it wasn't hard to read what he was surely thinking: "Please let this be over soon." But the pain would not be quick in a hearing that, 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 BP 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, not least a Texas refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 people.

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. This was shortly before he asked Mr Hayward if he was afraid of being sacked. (He hadn't given that any thought, was the reply.)

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.

Mr Stupak allowed himself some cheap-shot sarcasm. "We are not small people, but we want our lives back," he offered, in an allusion to the "small people" gaffe made by BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg earlier in the week. He also reminded Mr Hayward of one of his most famous misspeaks. "Mr Hayward, I am sure you will get your life back with a golden parachute back to England."

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 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 interrupted.

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 and demanded for him to be jailed.

"We will not rest until we make this right," Mr Hayward said in a statement that had been released in advance to the media throng 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."

In London, shares in BP staged a rally, rising 6.7 per cent in the wake of an agreement struck at the White House on Wednesday to suspend dividend payments this year and create a ring-fenced $20bn fund to pay compensation claims in the Gulf. The deal removed some of the uncertainty about the oil giant's future.

In a brief departure from the expected script, a Republican on the committee, Joe Barton of Texas, apologised to Mr Hayward for the events of the previous day. Saying he was "ashamed", Mr Barton said: "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterise as a shakedown, a $20bn shakedown. It's got no legal standing and sets a terrible precedent for the future."

He later apologised for using the term "shakedown" and then withdrew his apology to the company after vice-President Joe Biden called his comments "outrageous" and his own party condemned him.

Harangued on the Hill...

Did BP cut corners?

Hayward: I think it's too early to reach a conclusion, with respect, Mr Chairman. The investigations are ongoing. They've identified seven key areas and when they're complete...

Representative Bart Stupak: Every one of those seven key areas dealt with saving time and saving money and accepting the risk.

Was he aware of the problems before the accident?

Hayward: I had no prior knowledge.

With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year around the world.

Representative Michael Burgess: Yeah, I know. That's what's scaring me right now.

On accusations of stonewalling

Representative Henry Waxman: I'm just amazed at this testimony. You're not taking responsibility. You're kicking the can down the road and acting as if you had nothing to do with this.

Hayward: I'm not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process.

BP's safety record

Hayward: In the three years I've been CEO, I've focused on improving dramatically our safety and environmental performance. That is why, amongst all the other reasons, I am so devastated by this accident.

On keeping his job

Hayward: At the moment, I am focused on the response. I think everyone here believes that the highest priority is to stop the leak, contain the oil on the surface and clean it up. And that is what my focus is.

On the compensation fund

Representative Joe Barton: I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterise as a shakedown, a $20bn shakedown. I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologise.

On cutting costs

Waxman: BP cut corner after corner to save a million dollars here and a few hours or days there. And now the whole Gulf is paying the price. We have reviewed 30,000 pages of documents from BP, including your emails. There is not a single email that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well.

Representative John Dingell: BP has a history of cutting corners for the almighty dollar.

... and the apology

Hayward: The explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico never should have happened, and I am deeply sorry that it did. We said all along that we would pay these costs. And now the American people can be confident that our word is good.

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