In an unexpected move, a top House Republican today offered an apology to BP PLC for what he called a White House "shakedown" of the British oil giant.
Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said that President Obama went too far in pressuring BP to fund a $20 billion escrow account to pay for environmental and economic damages resulting from the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"I am ashamed of what happened at the White House yesterday," Barton said. "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would consider a shakedown, in this case a $20 billion shakedown."
Barton said that it was unfair for the White House to press for the fund at the same time that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering criminal charges against the oil company.
"There is no question that BP is liable for the damages, but we have a due process system," he said. "I'm not speaking for anyone else, but I apologize."
Barton made his comments at a hearing on the cause of the BP oil spill, amid heavy bipartisan criticism of the oil giant's chief executive, Tony Hayward.
Democrats were quick to break from their prepared remarks to come to the defense of the White House-brokered spill recovery fund.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said that it was "not a shakedown, rather it was the government of the United States working to protect the most vulnerable citizens that we have in our country right now: the residents of the Gulf."
The White House also scrambled to respond, quickly releasing a statement calling on lawmakers to repudiate Barton's remarks.
"What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. "Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a 'tragedy,' but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now."
With the exception of Barton's apology, there have so far been few surprises during today's hearing, which began this morning and is expected to carry into the late afternoon.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle focused their anger at Hayward and the rest of BP for failing to weigh the risks of deepwater drilling.
The energy panel's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has been reviewing both the lead-up to the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion and the response to the massive oil spill that ensued.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the full committee, said that he and his staff had reviewed roughly 30,000 pages of documents and e-mails from BP and found that company executives were "oblivious" to the inherent risks of deepwater drilling.
"There is not a single e-mail or document that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well," Waxman said.
Waxman added that he likewise found no evidence of involvement from Doug Suttles or Andy Inglis, BP America's chief executive and chief operating officer for exploration and production.
"BP's corporate complacency is astonishing," Waxman said.
A number of lawmakers read from company e-mails that they had obtained, including one sent from a BP drilling engineer after learning of the risks and BP's decision to ignore them. "[W]ho cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine," the e-mail said, according to lawmakers.
"We have learned that time and again BP officials had warning signs that this was, as one employee put it, 'a nightmare well,'" said Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). "They made choices that set safety aside in exchange for cost-cutting and time-saving decisions."
Lawmakers have raised a number of specific questions about BP's actions in the lead-up to the accident, including decisions to use a well design with relatively few barriers to gas flow and to limit the amount of "centralizers" used to ensure the drill pipe was centered in the well.
They have also questioned why BP did not run an additional test to evaluate the effectiveness of the cement at the bottom of the well, remove potentially gas-bearing drilling mud and secure the wellhead with a lockdown sleeve before allowing pressure on the seal from below.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), the subcommittee's ranking member, said that while federal regulators and contractors likely played a part in the accident, it was BP's "general lack of curiosity" and failure to follow best industry practices that led to the blowout.
Despite several urgings from lawmakers beforehand, Hayward stuck to his script during his opening remarks.
He said that he was "deeply sorry" for the ongoing spill and told lawmakers that BP investigators had yet to complete their investigation.
"I understand people want a simple answer about why this happened and who is to blame," Hayward said. "The truth, however, is that this is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures."
Lawmakers are expected to use the question-and-answer portion of the hearing later today to press Hayward for a more detailed account of what he knew and when he knew it.