U.S. lawmakers blasted major oil companies on Tuesday for virtually worthless and cookie cutter plans to handle a deepwater oil disaster as top industry executives testified on BP's massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Summoned before the House of Representatives subcommittee on energy and environment, executives from five major oil companies defended their own drilling practices as they sought to stave off the prospect of restrictive new regulations on the industry.
The hearings are a significant risk to BP and to the future of U.S. offshore drilling, as lawmakers begin to consider legislative options to address the Gulf oil spill and to possibly increase the penalties companies will face.
Lawmakers did not seem convinced that the other four major oil companies -- Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell -- had better contingency plans than BP. BP is struggling to contain oil that has gushed from a ruptured well for nearly two months in the worst spill in U.S. history.
Representative Bart Stupak, a Democrat and one of the lawmakers heading a probe of the disaster, criticized the companies' response plans for offshore accidents. He singled out Exxon Mobil for having a 40-page media response strategy, including pre-written talking points.
Exxon Mobil's plan appears more concerned about public perception than wildlife protection given the fact that their media plan is fives times longer than its plan for protecting wildlife, said Stupak, adding that all of the companies' plans were virtually worthless when an actual spill occurs.
The industry is seeking to stave off tough new regulations on offshore drilling the government could impose. They could range from blow-out preventer certification to safety training.
Soon after the BP spill, the Obama administration imposed a six-month moratorium on drilling in waters more than 500 feet deep.
One by one, the lawmakers took turns heaping criticism on the oil executives -- who were all sitting expressionless as they stared into rows of their inquisitors.
Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat, said the companies had submitted nearly identical cookie cutter strategies to deal with a major spill which all included techniques that had failed to stem the flow of oil from BP's well.
We found that none of the five companies has an adequate plan, he said.
Dozens of protesters lined up outside the hearing room before the questioning began to get one of the handful of seats open to the public. Some wore black shirts saying energy shouldn't cost lives while others held up signs saying Big oil lies, people die.
The April 20 rig accident that triggered the spill killed 11 oil workers.
In prepared remarks, Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson said it was crucial to find out what caused BP's rig to explode.
This incident represents a dramatic departure from the industry norm in deepwater drilling, Tillerson said.
Shell Oil Co President Marvin Odum said, We remain confident in our drilling expertise and procedures, built on a foundation of multiple required safety barriers, proven methods and strict company standards.
The hearing came ahead of a scheduled televised address from the Oval Office by President Barack Obama on Tuesday evening. Polls show many Americans doubt his administration has done enough to clean up the spill and prevent future accidents.
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Timothy Gardner, writing by Deborah Charles; Editing by Russell Blinch and Frances Kerry)