The Oil Spill Blame Game

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A theme emerged early in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing into the BP oil spill. For today’s grilling, lawmakers summoned Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America, which holds the lease on the Deepwater Horizon rig; Steve Newman, CEO of drilling company Transocean, which owns it; and Tim Probert of Halliburton, a subcontractor charged with encasing the well pipe in cement. Each of them supplied some version of the same message: we’re not sure what caused the tragedy, but it’s the other guy’s fault.

BP has come is under heavy fire for the April 20 explosion that killed 11 people and could ultimately gush more oil than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. After touting the company’s response and its cooperation with federal agencies, McKay pointed the finger at Transocean, which is responsible for the blowout preventer, the instrument designed to seal a well if something goes wrong. “The systems are intended to fail-close and be fail-safe,” McKay said. “Sadly and for reasons we do not yet understand, in this case, they were not.” Transocean’s Newman denied the charge, arguing the “sudden, catastrophic failure” had to be related to the cement or casing process, which Halliburton works on. And Halliburton’s Probert said his company had performed its obligations in accordance with BP’s directives.

Give some Senators credit for calling the witnesses on their determination to pass the buck. “I get one message, and that message is, ‘Don’t blame me,’ ” said Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming. “I would suggest to the three of you that we are all in this together,” said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who in her opening remarks stressed the importance of offshore drilling to the U.S. economy. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez called the finger-pointing a “liability chase.”

Before denying culpability, each of the three company chiefs hewed to the unwritten dictates of these exercises by apologizing and acknowledging the impact on victims’ families and the Gulf Coast economy. McKay said his company is willing — as the law mandates — to shoulder the cost of the cleanup and claims. Pressed by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, McKay said BP expected to exceed its liability limit of $75 million to pay for “legitimate” — i.e., “substantiated” — claims. McKay also insisted that BP has a well-honed operating system. Apparently it doesn’t extend to disasters that are “unforeseen.” As the Washington Post reports, after the failure of its containment-dome solution, BP is now basically attempting to plug the leak with trash:

Engineers will use golf balls and shredded automobile tires in what they call a “junk shot” to try to clog the oil well that has been leaking crude at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico since the sinking last month of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon.

“We’ll be pumping pieces of tire. We’ll be pumping knots in ropes,” Kent Wells, senior vice president of exploration and production for BP, said in a news briefing Monday. “There’s a little bit of a science in this, even though it sounds odd.”