THE chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward, was last night told his company was guilty of "criminal negligence" when he was grilled over the Deepwater Horizon disaster by furious United States politicians.
• BP CEO Tony Hayward faces the glare of the world's media. Picture: Getty
Mr Hayward faced a barrage of withering and often highly personal criticism when he appeared before a stormy congressional hearing that reflected the American public's fury following the country's worst-ever environmental catastrophe.
A contrite Mr Hayward described his devastation following the accident at the Macondo well and said he was "deeply sorry" for the accident which killed 11 people and is causing massive ecological damage.
But his apology did not placate hostile politicians on the House of Representatives' committee on energy and commerce, who were repeatedly frustrated by his unwillingness to give straight answers to questions on BP's safety record and the well, which has been spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 59 days.
Facing calls for his resignation, Mr Hayward insisted he could not say what had caused the spill until BP's "multiple investigations" into the disaster had been completed. He also dodged technical questions on how the well had been constructed, claiming that he lacked the engineering expertise to deal with them.
His approach resulted in his being accused of "stonewalling" and failing to co-operate with the committee, which met the day after BP said that it would be scrapping dividend payments to shareholders and promising a $20 billion (14bn) fund for an independently run compensation fund for spill victims.
But the $20bn fund was described as "just the tip of the iceberg" by the Pennsylvanian congressman Mike Doyle, who accused BP of "bad judgment at best and criminal negligence at worst". Mr Doyle added: "When you operate on our land and our waters, you are only there because the public trust allows you to be there. You violated that trust in the worst possible way."
Henry Waxman, a Democrat representing California, told the chief executive he was "irresponsible" for declining to discuss what may have led to the rig explosion and subsequent spill.
Mr Hayward said he was unaware of the drilling activities at the well and could not "pass judgment on those decisions".
That drew an angry response from Mr Waxman, who declared: "I am just amazed at this testimony. You are not taking responsibility, you are kicking the can down the road and acting like you have nothing to do with this company."
Earlier, there had been another emphatic illustration of the public's anger when a lone protester had to be removed from the hearing. Shortly before Mr Hayward spoke his first words, Diane Wilson caused a disturbance by shouting from the back of the room: "You need to be charged with a crime".
She was grabbed by police and removed from the area.
Ms Wilson's demonstration provided little respite for Mr Hayward, who had to endure scathing criticism of BP's safety record.
"BP cut corner after corner to save a million dollars here and a few hours or days there. And now the whole gulf is paying the price," Mr Waxman said.
Mr Waxman added that there was no evidence that Mr Hayward paid attention to the "tremendous risks" BP was taking. "We have reviewed 30,000 pages of documents from BP, including your e-mails. There is not a single e-mail that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well," he said.
Mr Waxman referred to an e-mail from BP's operations drilling engineer, who oversaw the multi-national's team of drilling engineers, which showed the firm's corporate attitude.
According to Mr Waxman, the engineer wrote: "Who cares, it's done. End of story, will probably be fine," after learning that BP had ignored risks associated with the Deepwater Horizon well.
Before his cross-examination, Mr Hayward had to endure a tide of criticism from the committee members, who lined up to accuse BP of putting cost cutting before safety. He also sat through video messages calling for harsh punishments to be handed out, which had been recorded by two of the widows who lost their husbands in the initial tragedy.
The committee heard BP had 760 safety violations in the US in the last five years, compared with eight by ConocoPhilips and six by ExxonMobil.
Vermont representative Peter Welch reeled off a list of safety failings at the oil giant in the years leading up to the Deepwater Horizon blast.
"For 59 days, BP has told the American people that this was an aberration. It is not an aberration – for BP this is business as usual," Mr Welch said. "It is dj vu again and again and again."
Mr Welch wondered, given BP's failings, whether it was time for its chief executive to "submit his resignation".
The attacks became personal when congressmen questioned Mr Hayward's pay packet, and there was a reference to his ill-judged comment when he said he would like to get his "life back".
Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat, said it would be many years before the victims of the spill would get their lives back. "I am sure you will get your life back, with a golden parachute to England," Mr Stupak said.
How Howard countered the questions
1 Are there other wells in the Gulf of Mexico which are built in the same manner as the Mocondo well?
"There are many wells in the Gulf of Mexico that have the same casing design. There are many wells that have been drilled with the same cement procedure. Everything that we do is subject to regulatory oversight. As we learn from our investigation, we will make appropriate changes."
2 Were you aware of potential problems at the Macondo well before the accident?
"I had no prior knowledge. With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year around the world."
3 Why are you not taking responsibility for the design of the well?
"I'm not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process."
4 Did BP cut corners?
"I think it's too early too reach a conclusion. The investigations are ongoing."
5 Should poor safety records bar companies from oil, mineral exploration in the US?
"In the three years I've been CEO, I've focused on improving dramatically our safety and environmental performance.
"That is why, amongst all the other reasons, I am so devastated by this accident."
6 Do you expect to be CEO of BP for much longer?
"At the moment, I am focused on the response.
"I think everyone here believes that the highest priority is to stop the leak, contain the oil on the surface and clean it up. And that is what my focus is."
From personal assistant to anointed heir
EARMARKED for success by former boss Lord Browne, Tony Hayward took over as group chief executive in 2007 while the oil giant was still reeling from the fall-out of a deadly Texas City blast.
But his back-to-basics approach saw BP's reputation largely rehabilitated and its market position enhanced during his first three years in the job.
This changed on 20 April, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico saw 11 people die and led to the region's worst ever ecological disaster.
It led to the BP chief being vilified in the United States – "hated" and "clueless" was one tabloid newspaper's verdict.
Originally from Berkshire, Mr Hayward joined BP in 1982 after studying geology at the University of Edinburgh.
In 1990, he became Lord Browne's personal assistant and his transition from geologist to executive began in earnest.
A series of promotions saw him in place to take over from Browne when the then chief executive stepped down prematurely in 2007.
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