12-09-2016  9:26 am      •     

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Members of Congress chastised the largest oil companies Wednesday, saying they are no better prepared to avoid an environmental catastrophe than BP was when its well exploded, unleashing millions of barrels of crude.
Live video streaming from today's Energy and Environment Subcommitee hearing on oil drilling  here
With top oil company executives waiting to testify at a House hearing, Rep. Henry Waxman asserted that the companies' spill response plans amounted to "paper exercises" that mirrored BP's failed plan. Their strategies to plug a spill deep beneath the sea are the same failed strategies that have stymied BP, the California Democrat said.
The other companies "are no better prepared to deal with a major oil spill than was BP," said Waxman, setting the tone for a tense hearing.
One lawmaker after another expressed frustration at BP's inability to stop oil gushing from its stricken well as the chief executives representing ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell - as well as BPAmerica - sat shoulder to shoulder at the witness table.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing unfolded as President Barack Obama was on the Gulf coast for the second day and walked on a beach near Pensacola, Fla. as onlookers chanted "Save our beach, save our beach." Obama planned to address the nation Tuesday night on the oil spill.
The House hearing marked the first time that the chief executives of the major oil companies - all leaders in deep-water drilling in the Gulf - were called before Congress since the April 20 BP explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. The accident unleashed the nation's worst oil spill. The government has estimated that as much as 2 million gallons of oil a day may be flowing into the Gulf.
Waxman's committee is expected to question BPAmerica chairman Lamar McKay on internal company e-mails and documents that the lawmaker said showed that BP made repeated decisions in the days and hours before the explosion that increased the risk of a major well blowout.
Chevron CEO John Watson said Chevrons deep water drilling activities "are safe and environmentally sound," But he said the company welcomes any new standards and "we must learn from this accident."
Some executives sought to distance themselves from BP.
ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson told the committee that the Gulf spill would not have occurred if BP had properly designed its deepwater well.
"We do not proceed with operations if we cannot do so safely," said Tillerson.
Insisted Shell president Marvin Odum, "Safety and environmental protection shall and will be Shell's top priorities."
Meanwhile, federal officials have given permission for BP to use a new method for capturing oil from the damaged wellhead, including burning some of the oil off after it is collected and brought to the surface.
BP said Monday it hopes to trap roughly 2.2 million gallons of oil daily by the end of June as it deploys additional containment equipment, including the flaring system.
Obama's trip to the Gulf was his fourth since the spill began. The president, who visited Mississippi and Alabama on Monday and Florida's coast Tuesday, sought to assure residents - and the country - that the government will "leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."
On Monday, Waxman's committee released documents that showed BP made a series of money-saving shortcuts and blunders that dramatically increased the danger of a destructive spill from a well that an engineer ominously described as a "nightmare" just six days before the April blowout.
Investigators found that BP was badly behind schedule on the project and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars with each passing day, and responded by cutting corners in the well design, cementing and drilling efforts and the installation of key safety devices.
"Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense. If this is what happened, BP's carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig," Waxman and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations panel, wrote in a letter.
So far, 114 million gallons of oil have poured into the Gulf under the worst-case scenario described by scientists - a rate of more than 2 million gallons a day. BP has collected 5.6 million gallons of oil through its latest containment cap on top of the well, or about 630,000 gallons per day.
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AP reporters Ray Henry and Brian Skoloffe conributed to this report from the Gulf region.

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