Lawmakers put oil execs in the hot seat

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Oil company executives are on the horns of a dilemma. Or, to be more specific, they are on the tusks of a dilemma.

Congressional investigators looking into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill found that BP and three other oil companies had filed "oil spill safety response plans" for the gulf that made reference to protecting walruses. The problem is that "there aren't any walruses in the Gulf of Mexico and there have not been for 3 million years," as Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) pointed out.

Markey, chairman of the energy subcommittee interrogating the oil bosses, turned to Exxon Mobil's Rex Tillerson. "How can Exxon Mobil have walruses in their response plan for the Gulf of Mexico?" the chairman inquired.

"It's unfortunate that walruses were included," the CEO answered.

Markey turned to ConocoPhillips's James Mulva and Chevron's John Watson. "How do you respond to having walruses in your plan?"

"It's not appropriate," Watson acknowledged.

"I agree," Mulva said.

Goo goo g'joob! At least we have agreement on something.

The oil men had been summoned to Washington for a round of ritual humiliation, and they played their parts admirably: clueless from beginning to end. Executives from the other companies tried to paint BP as an oil-spill outlier that violated industry safety standards, but lawmakers -- even the Republicans on the panel -- did a good job of making the group of executives look like clowns in an overstuffed Volkswagen.

There was, for example, the fact that Chevron had named one of its new rigs in the gulf "Blind Faith." Then there was the awkward fact that government filings from three of the companies listed the name and number of the same technical "expert" -- a man named Peter Lutz, who had died years earlier.

Markey asked Exxon Mobil's Tillerson why in 2009 he filed "a response plan having a person who has been dead for four years."

"The fact that Dr. Lutz died in 2005 does not mean his work and the importance of his work died with him," Tillerson answered.

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