WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Surrounded by handlers and the customary scrum of photographers, a tense BP CEO Tony Hayward on Thursday deflected tough questions at what has become a set-piece in the U.S. capital: the congressional grilling.
Sitting alone at the witness table, Hayward looked sheepish but gave a controlled performance in the face of hours of invective and a barrage of questions from a U.S. House of Representatives committee on the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
When he started to testify, his low-pitched voice could barely be heard, and he was twice asked to pull the microphone closer to his mouth.
Hayward showed contrition over BP’s handling of the disastrous April 20 blowout and oil spill but often avoided questions about safety issues, saying he was “not involved” in decision-making about Deepwater Horizon.
His prepared remarks to the committee offered more questions than answers.
“How could this happen? How damaging is the spill to the environment? Why is it taking so long to stop the flow of oil and gas in the Gulf?” Hayward said in an opening statement. “We don’t yet have all the answers to these important questions.”
At least four times, U.S. lawmakers brought up Hayward’s stated intention to “focus like a laser beam on safety.” Then they asked him some variant of, “So why didn’t that work?”
Hayward, a Briton, has become infamous in the United States for comments seen as insensitive after the disaster that killed 11 workers and resulted in the worst U.S. oil spill in history.
In May, he upset Gulf residents by saying he wanted his life back and commenting: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
On Thursday, Hayward dodged some of the most pointed queries.
“It’s clear to me that you don’t want to answer our questions,” Henry Waxman, a California Democrat said at the end of a lengthy exchange about BP’s decision to disregard safety recommendations of its own engineers.
When Waxman accused Hayward of stonewalling this investigation and others, the CEO responded: “I‘m not stonewalling. I simply was not involved in the decision-making process.”
Texas Republican Michael Burgess had a similarly tough time pinning Hayward down, getting responses like, “I‘m not prepared to speculate on what may or may not have made a difference until such time as the multiple investigations that are ongoing are concluded.”
Hayward said he knew nothing about the drilling of the blown well beforehand: “With respect, sir, we drill hundreds of wells a year all around the world.”
“Yes, I know,” Burgess said, getting a rare laugh in the hearing room. “That’s what’s scaring me right now.”
Editing by Vicki Allen