Apologies and anger dominate gulf oil-spill hearing as BP goes before Congress

Obama called the agreement for BP to put $20 billion into escrow "a good start" that will reassure people "I was talking to in the gulf that BP will meet its responsibilities."
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

The much-anticipated congressional hearing Thursday on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill came down to a single word: Sorry.

In a room packed with cameras and spectators, BP chief executive Tony Hayward said, "I am deeply sorry" for the lost lives and environmental damage from his company's doomed offshore rig.

But the British businessman's apology before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was upstaged by another one. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) apologized to BP, saying the deal made at the White House Wednesday to set up an escrow fund to cover oil-spill damages and claims amounted to a "$20 billion shakedown."

While a subdued Hayward went on to anger committee members by deflecting their questions, Barton riled up a wider audience across the political spectrum. Then, late in the afternoon, he apologized for his apology after party leaders threatened to oust him from his position as ranking Republican on the committee.

Barton prompted the uproar with his opening statement at the hearing. "I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," he said. "I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown." He said the escrow fund, which will be administered by the independent arbitrator Kenneth Feinberg, is a "slush fund" with "no legal standing."

Barton said BP should be pursued through the legal system.

"I apologize," he said to Hayward, who sat alone at the witness table, surrounded by two dozen photographers. "I do not want to live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize."

Reaction was swift. Condemnations came from fellow committee members, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, environmental groups and the liberal Center for American Progress.

Vice President Biden said Barton's comments were "incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch."

"There's no shakedown," Biden said angrily. "It's insisting on responsible conduct and a responsible response to something they caused."

Republicans were no more supportive. House GOP leaders John A. Boehner (Ohio), Eric Cantor (Va.) and Mike Pence (Ind.) all distanced themselves from Barton.

"Congressman Barton's statements this morning were wrong," they said in a statement. "BP itself has acknowledged that responsibility for the economic damages lies with them and has offered an initial pledge of $20 billion for that purpose."

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