Anna Fifield Live blog: BP’s Hayward continues on Capitol Hill

Anna Fifield is the FT’s US political correspondent and has been covering the Washington end of the BP oil spill since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20. She blogged live from the hearing room.

5:28pm: Mr Hayward and the other BP executives were escorted under heavy police and security guard out to black SUVs that were waiting at the nearest exit. One photographer who apparently got too close to Mr Hayward was seen being pushed away from the executives by a Capitol police officer.

And with that, this blog comes to a close.

5:26pm: Mr Stupak is bringing the hearing to a close. “We could go here all night and I’m sure people would like to,” he said, but said that instead lawmakers would have 10 days to ask additional questions.

“I agree we’re the most important committee in Congress but even this committee must come to an end,” he said.

Mr Stupak, however, told Mr Hayward that lawmakers had been frustrated with all his “I don’t know” answers and said he should be better prepared to answer their questions during the next session.

5:19pm: Mr Hayward might find some solace in the fact that he’s not the only one getting a big thumbs-down today. The first poll following President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday night showed that the public was not impressed with his response to the oil spill.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey published on Thursday found Mr Obama’s ratings are going the same way as President George W. Bush’s following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005.

Following that hurricane, the proportion of Americans who thought Mr Bush was a strong and decisive leader dropped by more than 10 percentage points. Thursday’s poll found that the proportion who now think Mr Obama is a strong and decisive leader has dropped by 7 points, from 60 per cent in January to 53 percent now.

At the same time, fewer Americans think Mr Obama is tough enough to handle a crisis or that he can manage the government effectively. The number of people who think he is tough enough to handle a crisis has fallen 11 points from last year to 53 per cent, the poll found.

5:11pm: Representative Peter Welch of Vermont said that BP had done a great deal on Wednesday to inspire confidence by agreeing to the White House’s request to establish a $20bn compensation fund.

“Your appearance today here has done a great deal to erode that confidence,” Mr Welch told the weary chief executive. “We know that you’re not an engineer, that you were not working on this rig, but your answer 65 times that you don’t know [what happened] erodes confidence. It doesn’t encourage confidence.”

5:04pm: Yes, the BP oil spill hearing really is still going on. We’ now entering our seventh hour of questioning (not counting the hour-long recess at lunchtime). Tony Hayward is looking and sounding a bit tired, like he’s spent seven hours in the ring. Which, of course, he basically has. After personifying British reserve in the first hours, he is becoming testier in his answers, uttering more phrases like “if you’ll just let me finish please”.

The lawmakers, while thinning in numbers, are still going strong. The protesters, however, have long since disappeared.

4:55pm: Ed Markey has brought up the whistle-blower Ken Abbott, the former BP executive who says he was fired after raising safety concerns about BP’s Atlantis rig in the Gulf. Mr Abbott has been testifying before a different Congressional committee on Thursday.

Mr Markey asked Mr Hayward if it was BP’s policy to fire people who asked uncomfortable questions.

“No it is not,” he responded.

“Well Mr Hayward, I am afraid that is what happened to Mr Abbott,” Mr Markey said, adding that BP, having told Mr Abbott that he was part of a force reduction. “Your company then put out an advertisement to hire someone for that job,” he said.

Mr Markey asked BP to shut down the Atlantis while a safety investigation was ongoing, but Mr Hayward said the concerns had been resolved.

“The only thing worse than one BP rig at the bottom of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico would be two BP rigs at the bottom of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico,” Mr Markey said.

The safety lapses alleged at BP were a “blistering, scalding indictment of the lack of culture of safety that you have at BP and I think it is something that has to end before we see another disaster,” he said.

4:51pm: Mr Hayward said that BP was still expecting the relief well to be completed by the end of August, permanently stopping the flow of oil from the leaking riser.

4:40pm: Mr Stupak is hammering Mr Hayward over the blow-out preventer in the well, which was supposed to be the final “fail-safe” mechanism and cut off the well riser in the event of an emergency. BP was discovered to have made 260 modifications to the BOP.

Mr Hayward said that he still believed that the BOP was the ultimate fail-safe mechanism, but Mr Stupak questioned why Mr Hayward would say this, given that it failed in the Macondo well on April 20.

4:34pm: Under questioning, Mr Hayward said that on discovery, BP estimated the size of the Macondo well at a total of 50m barrels of oil. This elicits a few gasps around the room as it was less than many had assumed.

Joe Barton, questioning Mr Hayward about the size of the well, said he had been led to believe it could be 500m barrels, which the chief executive said was not right.

At the current flow rate, Mr Barton noted, the well would simply peter out in a little over two years. That would, presumably, be two years too long for the residents of the Gulf coast.

4:28pm: The Barton saga rumbles on. The three top Republicans in the House – John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Mike Pence – issued this statement, a clear indication that they had strong-armed the retraction out of Mr Barton.

“The oil spill in the Gulf is this nation’s largest natural disaster and stopping the leak and cleaning up the region is our top priority.  Congressman Barton’s statements this morning were wrong.  BP itself has acknowledged that responsibility for the economic damages lies with them and has offered an initial pledge of $20 billion dollars for that purpose.

“The families and businesspeople in the Gulf region want leadership, accountability and action from BP and the Administration.  It is unacceptable that, 59 days after this crisis began, no solution is forthcoming.  Simply put, the American people want all of our resources, time and focus to be directed toward stopping the spill and cleaning up the mess.”

4:17pm: Kathy Castor of Florida added that the spill was like a “sucker punch” to the region after the hurricanes and other hardships of recent years.

Ms Castor quoted my colleague Ed Crooks’ article in the FT earlier this month, in which Mr Hayward said that BP “did not have the tools you would have wanted in your toolkit” to respond to a catastrophe like the current Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Mr Hayward said this related to a very specific question and did not apply across the board.

“The double-speak is rather tiresome,” she said. “I’m dismayed and disheartened by what has happened, and the motivation of profit over safety.”

4:14pm: Charlie Melancon, the Democratic representative from Louisiana who broke down at a hearing a few weeks ago while talking about the impact of the spill, asked Mr Hayward if money was more precious than a life.

“It isn’t. It absolutely isn’t,” Mr Hayward said in a subdued voice. “Safety doesn’t come before anything. That’s something I believe in very passionately.”

3:58pm: It looks like Joe Barton has been on the receiving end of a shakedown of his own. Mr Barton has just released the following statement:

“I apologise for using the term ‘shakedown’ with regard to yesterday’s actions at the White House in my opening statement this morning, and I retract my apology to BP. As I told my colleagues yesterday and said again this morning, BP should bear the full financial responsibility for the accident on their lease in the Gulf of Mexico. BP should fully compensate those families and businesses that have been hurt by this accident. BP and the federal government need to stop the leak, clean up the damage, and take whatever steps necessary to prevent a similar accident in the future. I regret the impact that my statement this morning implied that BP should not pay for the consequences of their decisions and actions in this incident.”

3:49pm: Vice President Joe Biden has weighed into the argument about Joe Barton’s suggestion that the White House had submitted BP to a “shakedown” with the $20bn escrow fund.

Mr Barton’s comments were “incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch” with the people whose livelihoods have been affected by the oil disaster, Mr Biden told reporters in the White House.

3:48pm: Eliot Engel, a Democratic representative from New York, told Mr Hayward that the BP investigation was taking too long and that BP was “really insulting our intelligence”.

“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.”

3:34pm: Kevin Costner has just arrived in the hearing room. Apparently he is just here out of interest, to watch the proceedings. Mr Hayward must be relieved – suddenly all the cameras are pointing somewhere else.

Mr Costner has been urging BP to use his company’s centrifuge machines, which can be fitted to fishing boats or docks, where they can separate as many as 200 gallons of oil from water per minute.

The actor told a Senate committee on Thursday morning that he had been working for more than a decade to have the machines ready for use in oil spills. He said all major oil companies should keep the machines nearby like fire extinguishers, ready whenever incidents happen, according to the Associated Press.

BP has contracted with Mr Costner and his company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, to use 32 of the centrifuge machines.

3:35pm: Asked if the Gulf of Mexico spill was preventable, Mr Hayward said: “I believe that all accidents are preventable.”

3:31pm: Lawmakers’ frustration with Mr Hayward’s answers is now leading to some cheap political tricks. Cliff Stearns of Florida said he was fed up with the chief executive saying he didn’t know the answer to their questions.

“Let me ask you this: Is today Thursday,” Mr Stearns asked.

Mr Hayward, sounding like he had to grit his teeth, responded: “Yes, today is Thursday.”

3:19pm: One lobbyist at the hearing told me he thought Mr Hayward was doing quite a good job of “staying in the box” and keeping his emotions under control and answering the often-hostile questioning in an even-tempered manner.

However, Mr Hayward’s “Britishness” was not helping him, the lobbyist said. “He seems aloof. That’s not going to play well in the Gulf or in the rest of Middle America,” he said.

2:56pm: The testy exchanges continue. Mike Ross of Arkansas told Mr Hayward that he appeared to be reciting statements his lawyers had given him to memorise.

“I don’t know if BP understands quite how angry Americans and the rest of the world are with them,” Mr Ross said. “It seems to me that BP has not been honest with the American people, with the American government. It seems that BP is trying to hide something. It’s hard to hide [60,000 barrels] of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico each day,” he said.

2:43pm: Mr Hayward continues to be questioned about whether BP had cut corners on the Macondo well to save time and money, most recently from Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado.

In the face of such questions, Mr Hayward said: “If there is any evidence that people put costs ahead of safety, I will take action.”

Again, he told the lawmakers that it is difficult to answer their questions while the company’s own investigation continues.

2:30pm: Bruce Braley of Iowa channelled Winston Churchill, explaining to Mr Hayward that American English and British English can some times differ. After asking Mr Hayward if BP was the subject of a “shake down” in the White House on Wednesday, when BP agreed to put $20bn into an escrow fund. “Shake down” in American English meant to be forced to do something they didn’t want to, Mr Braley explained. After this translation, Mr Hayward repeated that BP had not been subject to such tactics at the White House.

2:11pm: The hearing resumed with Bart Stupak, the subcommittee chairman, telling Mr Hayward that several members had expressed frustration during the recess with the chief executive’s “lack of candour”. He told Mr Hayward that they expected him to be “more forthcoming and less evasive” this afternoon.

The hearing is set to go on for most of the afternoon, with another day set aside for the hearing to continue if needed.

Read Anna’s previous post from the hearing room.