GULF SPILL:

Lawmakers criticize oil companies' response plans

House Democrats' anger at BP PLC spilled over today to the rest of the oil industry, as they accused the companies of being focused on maximizing drilling profits at the expense of human safety and the environment.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Chevron Corp., Shell Oil Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips attempted to distance themselves from their British rival as they told skeptical lawmakers that the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would not have happened on their watch.

Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) officially summoned the oil executives to the Capitol to discuss the nation's energy future. But the specter of untold amounts of crude escaping from BP's Macondo well quickly made itself known at this morning's hearing, which began at 9:30 a.m. and is expected to continue into the late afternoon.

"The companies here today will contend that this was an isolated incident," Markey said to start the hearing. "They will say a similar disaster could never happen to them, and yet it is this kind of blind faith -- which is ironically the name of an actual rig in the Gulf -- that has led to this kind of disaster."

Republicans had their fair share of harsh words for BP, but they mostly avoided extending their criticism to the rest of Big Oil, instead painting the industry executives as the best-suited -- and most motivated -- to bring an end to the ongoing environmental disaster.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said there is "no question" that BP is responsible for the Gulf spill but that Democratic criticism of the entire industry was merely an attempt to score political points in an effort to advance their own energy and climate legislation.

If President Obama, Markey or anyone else knew how to plug the spewing well, Barton said, "by golly, all they have to do is pick up the phone and tell them what to do."

"The laws of nature and the laws of physics don't respond to 30-second sound bites," Barton added.

Democrats, however, continued to blast BP and its competitors, reading portions of all five companies' emergency spill response plans in an effort to show that BP's inability to control its ruptured well is not occurring in a vacuum and is evidence of an industrywide failure to be adequately prepared.

"On paper, these are impressive documents; each is 500 or more pages long," said Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), holding up a thick white binder holding Exxon Mobil's plan. "But what they show is that Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell are not better-prepared to deal with a major oil spill than BP."

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mass.) took the companies to task for devoting substantially more of their plans to laying out its media response -- complete with pre-prepared press releases -- than on how it would limit the environmental damages caused by a spill.

"It could be said that BP is the one bad apple in the bunch, but it appears they have plenty of company," Stupak said.

Markey and Waxman both pointed out that four of the five companies noted in their Gulf spill-response plans how they would protect walruses, which do not live in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's unfortunate that walruses are included, and it's an embarrassment that they were included," Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said after being pressed by Markey early in the question-and-answer portion of the hearing.

Execs tout safety plans

BP's competitors were all quick to address the ongoing environmental disaster in their opening remarks and stress that it is not representative of the industry's offshore drilling history. Still the four men mostly attempted to limit their criticism of their British rival, or, in the case of ConocoPhillips Chief Executive James Mulva, avoid it altogether.

"We are not in a position to speak about what went wrong at the Deepwater Horizon," Mulva said in the opening moments of his testimony. "The companies involved and the regulators will speak to that."

Still, the executives were quick to tout their own offshore safety records, an action that suggested at least a tacit condemnation of BP's actions leading up the April 20 explosion that sunk the Deepwater Horizon rig and ultimately set off the massive oil leak that is expected to continue until at least mid-August.

"At Chevron, everything we do begins with our fundamental commitment to safety," said John Watson, the company's chairman and CEO. "The Deepwater Horizon accident tragically reinforces that all companies must operate with the same high standards of safety and reliability. It is clear that failure to do so has dire consequences.

"I believe the independent investigation will show that this tragedy was preventable," Watson added.

While congressional criticism has become commonplace for BP executives traveling to Capitol Hill in the eight weeks since the spill began, today is the first time that the other oil giants have been forced to weigh in on the accident.

Markey and Waxman are expected to use this afternoon's question-and-answer period to continue to press the executives to explain what they would have done differently.

"You say you would have done things differently ... but the record does not support that the other companies would have been more prepared than BP; their plans were the same," Waxman said this morning.

In the meantime, the oil executives are attempting to walk a fine line between acknowledging the need for a full and rigorous investigation into the causes of the BP spill and making the case that petroleum and natural gas -- particularly from offshore drilling -- will remain key pillars in the nation's energy portfolio for years to come.

"The business of offshore exploration will and must continue ... not only for what it yields for our nation but also because that's what America does," Mulva said. "We learn new lessons and move forward to higher levels of progress and achievement."

In addition to the large role offshore drilling plays in the U.S. energy supply, all five executives sought to highlight its role in the overall economy.

"In the context of this tragedy, we acknowledge the reason for the president's decision to pause deepwater drilling," said Marvin Odum, Shell's president. "But it is not without consequences: thousands of lost jobs and billions in lost wages and spending. And not only on the Gulf Coast but also in places like Alaska."

BP gets grilled

Markey hammered Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America, over his company's early public flow rate estimates of roughly 1,000 barrels of crude per day.

Markey read from a confidential BP document written in the early days of the spill that estimated the spill could be as high as 14,000 barrels. The true size of the spill may be as much as 50,000 barrels per day, according to the latest government estimates.

"Are you ready to apologize to the American people for getting that number so wrong, for being so incompetent or deceptive?" Markey asked.

McKay reiterated BP's response that the 5,000 barrels figure was issued jointly with the government. "Those were not BP estimates, they were Unified Command estimates," he said

The BP executive also sidestepped a question from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) over whether the company would commit to set aside $20 billion to create an independent escrow account to pay for economic and environmental claims.

"I cannot comment on whether there will be a fund set up or not," McKay said.

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