BP’s Tony Hayward Stonewalls Congress

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Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas has received $27,350 in campaign donations from BP—and today during the Congressional inquisition of BP CEO Tony Hayward, Barton was worth just about every penny. Barton’s odd apology in his opening statement to Hayward—Barton said he was “ashamed of what happened in the White House” when BP agreed yesterday to a $20 billion escrow fund for oil spill compensation—became the story of an otherwise frustrating hearing. As Jay Newton-Small writes in Swampland, Democrats immediately pounced on Barton’s statement, with everyone from the White House to Nancy Pelosi to the Democratic National Committee hammering Barton for his insensitivity. The Dems are already fundraising off the remark, and Republican Jeff Miller of Florida called on Barton to resign as the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. With each side firing off email blasts and press releases like it was the last days of a Presidential election, it was easy to forget that the leader of the company responsible for the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history was facing Congress for the first time. (Barton did apologize later in the hearing for his “misconstrued misconstruction” and released a statement apologizing for his apology.)

But the hearing itself was long and frustrating. Hayward, his voice never changing tone, stonewalled a series of increasingly frustrated Congressional questioners, with such persistence that if this guy had been in goal for England at the World Cup match against the U.S. instead of Robert Green, it would have been an English rout. Repeatedly members of Congress brought up the points from recent investigations into the Deepwater Horizon accident—the problems with the cementing of the well, decisions to use a less expensive tapered design for the  piping—and repeatedly Hayward answered that he wasn’t on the scene, that he hadn’t made those decisions and that he couldn’t fully answer until all investigations were complete. Hayward’s refusal to say anything of value, to go beyond what clearly sounded like lawyer-rehearsed talking points, threatened to drive some members of Congress mad, as Representative Eliot Engel demonstrated:

Mr. Hayward, let me just say with all due respect: I, like everyone else here, and everyone else in America, [am] thoroughly disgusted. I think you’re stalling, I think you’re insulting our intelligence and I really resent it.

And that was the truly infuriating part. After putting off his appearance before Congress for a week, supposedly to be have more time to prepare, Hayward brought nothing new to the hearing. He couldn’t tell Congress whether there were oil plumes under the water. (Last month he’d denied that there were, though government and independent scientists have since confirmed that they exist.) Hayward was asked about reports that oil-spill cleanup workers employed by BP weren’t being given proper safety equipment—he said that BP was “endeavoring to provide safety equipment.” The closest time Hayward came to finding responsibility for what went wrong on Deepwater Horizon—aside from saying generally that BP was sorry for the spill—was when he blamed the failure of the blowout preventer, the last-ditch safety device that should have shut off the well after the rig exploded. “We believed the blowout preventer was the ultimate fail safe,” Hayward said. “It was clear that was not the case.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the blowout preventer was manufactured by a company other than BP: Cameron.

All in all, Hayward answered the questions from the committee as if he were in a criminal court, not the halls of government. If he had intended to use his time before Congress to reassert his authority, to let the American people—and perhaps his shareholders as well—know that he was ready to take responsibility and lead BP forward, well, Hayward did not do that. Instead, Hayward’s performance was of a piece with how BP has responded to this crisis from the start: vaguely, opaquely and ineffectively.

During a break in the hearing I spoke with Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and his comments got to the heart of why Hayward has gone wrong:

He needs to be honest. We need a daily press conference or statement that comes from him. He has to say, “here’s what we know and what we’re doing.” Even if they can’t solve it, you need to make people believe that there’s an experienced executive in charge. I don’t see that…It’s the uncertainty about what’s going on that bothers so many people. He needs to share everything there is to share.

It’s clear, though, that’s not the path Hayward has chosen to take—which means we can expect this strange war with BP to continue, perhaps for as long as he remains in charge.Bart Stupak, the chairman of the House subcommittee carrying out the hearings, summed up his colleagues’ feelings with his final comment:

Members are frustrated because time and again we hear, “I wasn’t involved with that decision,” or “we need to wait for the conclusion of the investigation. We had hoped by giving you information and the June 14 letter you’d be prepared to answer questions, not just from the members of Congress but the American people.

That wasn’t the case today, and Hayward’s evasion—not Joe Barton’s impolitic remark—was the real story.