WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress was given a chance to vent its frustrations. And BP's top executive, the target of the rage, did what he hoped to do — deflect the most probing questions and avoid any serious gaffes.
While outrage filled the air, the much-awaited grilling of BP CEO Tony Hayward by a House committee produced good theater but little new information about what caused the catastrophic oil spill that has wrought economic havoc and environmental devastation across the Gulf Coast region.
And while Hayward has a reputation for making intemperate remarks, it was a leading Republican, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who produced audible gasps in the hearing room Thursday when he apologized to the BP executive for the White House getting the oil company to commit to a $20 billion Gulf Coast relief fund. Barton called it a "shakedown."
The lawmaker's words caused a furor in the GOP House leadership, and the Texas congressman, who has received $100,470 in political contributions from oil and gas companies, within hours was forced to apologize for the apology.
After all, it was Hayward, whose giant, wealthy oil company caused the nation's worst oil spill, who was supposed to apologize, not a congressman. For his part, Hayward said he was "deeply sorry" and "distraught" as well as "devastated" over the spill and its impact on Gulf coast Americans.
But that was about it from the 53-year-old British executive, whom President Barack Obama had said he would like to fire — if only he could.
Hayward was determined not to give lawmakers much more, no matter how hard they tried during the daylong hearing to elicit new details about BP's failures leading up to the April 20 explosion on the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
Congressional investigators had found e-mails and other internal BP documents showing the company appeared to be taking shortcuts to save time — and money — in drilling the ill-fated well. Those findings had been made public June 15 and lawmakers expected to get Hayward to elaborate on them.
"What we have learned so far is alarming," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a former state trooper whose grilling of Hayward at times resembled an interrogation, though a largely unsuccessful one.
The BP executive didn't flinch. In a low, even voice, he repeatedly deflected lawmaker's questions, even when repeated over and over. He insisted he was not involved in the decision-making and knew little about what was going on aboard the drilling rig.
For better answers, lawmakers needed to wait until the investigations are complete, he said.
"Your evasion will make our job more difficult and will impede our understanding of what went wrong," the committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told Hayward.
Stupak said the evidence obtained so far has shown that BP, in drilling the well, "made choices that set safety aside in exchange for cost-cutting and time-saving" and that these choices set the stage for disaster.
But if anyone thought the daylong verbal flogging of Hayward was going to shed any more light on the matter, they were disappointed.
He said he had looked at what the congressional investigators had obtained but didn't consider it evidence of anything.
It's "too early to say what caused the incident. There is still extensive work to do," he told the frustrated lawmakers.
What about earlier problems in drilling the well? "I had no prior knowledge," he said.
Did BP engineers use a risky well design to save money? "I wasn't involved in any of the decision-making," he said.
What about faulty cement work in closing the well? "I'm not a cement engineer, I'm afraid," he replied.
Waxman said Hayward was "stonewalling" by refusing to answer the questions.
Meanwhile, the breached well has disgorged an estimated 73.5 million to 126 million gallons of oil, whether into the water or captured. And the crude continues to flow.
"Today was the beginning, not the end," Stupak told reporters after the hearing, promising more investigating and more hearings.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that "without a question" Hayward will make a return appearance.
If so, it is sure to again make good theater. But whether lawmakers will get the answers they seek is far less certain.
EDITOR'S NOTE — H. Josef Hebert has covered energy and environmental issues for The Associated Press since 1990.