US & World

Oil company executives face hostile congressional committee

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) delivers an opening statement during a Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing about 'The Motor Vehicle Safety Act.' May 6, 2010 in Washington, DC.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) delivers an opening statement during a Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing about 'The Motor Vehicle Safety Act.' May 6, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Executives from the big five oil companies are getting a tongue lashing from a congressional committee today on Capitol Hill.

Los Angeles Democrat Henry Waxman, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said it’s clear BP was not prepared to deal with a major oil spill from a deep water well. But Congressman Waxman said the oil spill response plans of other oil companies are cookie cutter copies of BP’s plan.

"On paper, they’re very impressive," he said. Each document is more than 500 pages long.

"But what they show," he said, "is that ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell are no better prepared to deal with a major oil spill than BP."

Republican members of the committee warned that they wanted to stick to the issue at hand: how to stop the leak and clean up the Gulf. They did not want to expand the discussion into the areas of renewable energy or climate change.

There was an interesting geographic split among members of the House committee.

Congressional members from oil producing states like Texas and Louisiana urged a cautious approach to any new regulation that might cost jobs.

But California Democrats and the sole Republican on the committee, Mary Bono Mack from Palm Springs, said their view of the Gulf spill is colored by another spill closer to home. Bono Mack said Southern Californians "still recall the oil spill in Santa Barbara from 1969."

She cited administration scientists who estimated that BP’s well could be spewing as much as four times that oil every day as was spilled during the entire Santa Barbara disaster. Bono Mack agreed with her GOP colleagues that the top priority of the hearing is to find better ways to stop the leak.

Congresswoman Lois Capps wasn’t too optimistic. The Democrat from Santa Barbara saw the Santa Barbara spill firsthand and said oil spill response technology has hardly changed in the last 40 years.

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson echoed that sentiment, admitting industry shortcomings when it comes to deep water leaks. "We are not well equipped to handle them." He said, "that’s why the emphasis is always on preventing these things from occurring because when they happen, we’re not very well equipped to deal with them. And that’s just a fact of the enormity of what we’re dealing with."

Tillerson called the BP spill an “unprecedented situation” the oil industry had never expected.