WASHINGTON (AFP) – A top oil executive admitted Tuesday that companies are ill-equipped to tackle major spills, as President Barack Obama readied for a solemn Oval Office address on the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe.
In a stunning admission, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson acknowledged in a series of testy exchanges with US lawmakers that oil giants are hamstrung once it comes to dealing with a major spill.
"When these things happen, we are not well equipped to handle them," he said, as lawmakers grilled top executives from BP and four of its biggest global rivals.
Sitting alongside BP America boss Lamar McKay at a packed Congress hearing, officials from ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell took pains to distance themselves from the unfolding Gulf catastrophe.
|L-R: Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, John Watson, Chairman and CEO of Chevron, James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, Marvin Odum, President of Shell Oil Company, and Lamar McKay, Chairman and President BP America, Inc. listens to questions from members while participating in a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, in Washington, DC.(AFP)|
They maintained that had BP followed industry-wide safety practices, the disaster -- triggered by an April blow-out of a BP-leased rig off the Louisiana coast -- would have been avoided.
"I believe the independent investigation will show that this tragedy was preventable," Chevron chief executive officer John Watson said.
In a further blow to BP's troubled efforts to contain the eight-week spill, a fire on a surface containment ship Tuesday shut down the British energy giant's bid to suck up the gushing oil.
A "small fire" broke out at around 9:30 am (1430 GMT) on a derrick on the Discovery Enterprise, a vast drilling ship collecting oil from the ruptured well on the sea floor via a mile-long pipe.
"The fire was quickly extinguished. The preliminary view is that the fire was caused by a lightning strike," a BP statement said.
Despite the latest setback highlighting the complexities of the task, Obama vowed millions of gallons of crude in the Gulf would be contained, and the region restored to health.
"Make no mistake, the United States of America has been through tough times before, but has always come out strong, and we will do so again," Obama said in Florida, before returning to give his first Oval Office speech.
"This is an assault on our shores, and we're going to fight back with everything that we've got," he vowed.
White House officials said Obama's address at 8:00 pm (0000 GMT) would outline a plan going forward to restore the region once the spill, estimated at up to 40,000 barrels a day, stops spewing into the Gulf.
In a bid to speed up compensation payments for residents facing economic ruin due to the spill, the Obama administration was also poised to take over the claims process from BP.
"The best way to prevail on BP is to take the claims process away from BP," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told CBS television, amid bitter criticism that BP is dragging its feet.
BP America's boss McKay declined to confirm however whether the company, which has vowed to pay all legitimate claims, would set up an escrow fund to compensate victims.
US lawmakers have demanded BP set up a 20-billion-dollar escrow fund to pay for the clean-up and economic recovery of the region, blighted after an April 20 explosion sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Before Tuesday's setback, BP was containing some 15,000 barrels a day from the ruptured wellhead, and has plans to move in more ships and equipment to try to contain most of the spill.
Gibbs said the company would likely be able to siphon up more than 90 percent of the gushing oil by the end of June, explaining that BP was "adding additional lines" to bring "more oil off of the surface and out of the Gulf."
But the under-fire company has warned the spill will not be stopped permanently until it completes drilling two deepsea relief wells in August.
Obama was also to announce the creation of a "czar" tasked with overseeing the restoration of the region once the spill is stopped.
BP suffered yet another blow Tuesday when ratings agency Fitch slashed its credit rating by six notches from "AA" to "BBB," causing its shares to dive again on the stock market, a day after they lost 10 percent.
Obama has summoned BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to the White House for talks on the crisis on Wednesday, also expected to be attended by BP chief executive Tony Hayward.