June 15: Oil company executives, (L-R) ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, Chevron Chairman and CEO John Watson, ConocoPhillips Chairman and CEO James Mulva, Shell Oil Company President Marvin Odum and BP America Inc President and Chairman Lamar McKay testify on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington (Reuters).
Oil company executives, in an attempt to distance themselves from the crisis in the Gulf, put the blame on BP for the worst oil spill in U.S. history during a key congressional hearing Tuesday.
House members used Tuesday's hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to chastise oil companies, accusing them of being no better prepared than BP to avert an environmental catastrophe.
With top oil company executives waiting to testify, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asserted that their companies' spill response plans amounted to "paper exercises" that mirrored BP's failed plan. Their strategies to plug a spill deep beneath the sea are the same failed strategies that have stymied BP, Waxman said.
The other companies "are no better prepared to deal with a major oil spill than was BP," said Waxman, setting the tone for a tense hearing.
But oil company executives were quick to distance themselves from BP.
Chevron chief executive John Watson said Chevron's deep-water drilling activities "are safe and environmentally sound," but he said the company welcomes any new standards and "we must learn from this accident."
ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson told the committee that the Gulf spill would not have occurred if BP had properly designed its deep-water well.
"We do not proceed with operations if we cannot do so safely," said Tillerson.
Shell president Marvin Odum insisted, "Safety and environmental protection shall and will be Shell's top priorities."
On Monday, Waxman's committee released documents that showed BP made a series of money-saving shortcuts and blunders that dramatically increased the danger of a destructive spill from a well that an engineer ominously described as a "nightmare" just six days before the April blowout.
Investigators found that BP was badly behind schedule on the project and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars with each passing day, and responded by cutting corners in the well design, cementing and drilling efforts and the installation of key safety devices.
"Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense. If this is what happened, BP's carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig," Waxman and Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat and chairman of the committee's investigations panel, wrote in a letter.
One lawmaker after another expressed frustration at BP's inability to stop oil gushing from its stricken well as the chief executives representing ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell -- as well as BPAmerica -- sat shoulder to shoulder at the witness table.
BP said Tuesday it was speeding up payments for large commercial claims. The company said in a statement that it has approved initial payments toward 90 percent of large commercial claims filed as a result of financial losses in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. BP said it approved 337 payments totaling $16 million to businesses that have filed claims larger than $5,000 apiece. Initial payments began over the weekend and will be completed this week, the company said.
The Obama administration has pressured BP to speed up payments of claims in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.
Meanwhile, Republicans used the hearing to accuse the White House of "exploiting" the Gulf oil spill crisis in order to pass a Democratic-backed energy and climate bill that's stalled in the Senate.
"The president is trying to exploit this disaster to pass his national energy tax,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the nation's top oil executives, who gathered Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
"Stop exploiting this disaster to pass this cap and trade tax,” Scalise said.
"Cap and trade" is a phrase used mostly by Republicans to refer to a climate measure the House approved last year. The legislation would "cap" the amount of pollutants firms could emit.
But firms could pollute more by trading for "credits" with other polluters, and many Republicans have decried the policy as a "national energy tax."
"To exploit this crisis to resurrect his climate change legislation is just wrong,” added House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind. "People expect the administration not to use this incident to advance their liberal agenda."
A few Republicans joined Democrats to pass the climate bill in the House a year ago. But the legislation is stymied in the Senate. Many moderate Democrats fear the bill could hurt jobs in the energy sector and along in the Gulf Coast.
The House hearing marked the first time that the chief executives of the major oil companies -- all leaders in deep-water drilling in the Gulf -- were called before Congress since the April 20 BP explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. The accident killed 11 workers and unleashed the nation's worst oil spill. The government has estimated that as much as 2 million gallons (liters) of oil a day may be flowing into the Gulf.
Waxman's committee is expected to question BPAmerica chairman Lamar McKay on internal company e-mails and documents that the lawmaker said showed that BP made repeated decisions in the days and hours before the explosion that increased the risk of a major well blowout.
Fox News' Chad Pergram and the Associated Press contributed to this report.