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Opinion

Thu., June 17, 2010

Dana Milbank: Oil execs can’t stop blame game

Oil company executives are on the horns of a dilemma. Or, to be more specific, they are on the tusks of a dilemma.

Congressional investigators looking into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill found that BP and three other oil companies had filed “oil spill safety response plans” for the Gulf that made reference to protecting walruses. The problem is that “there aren’t any walruses in the Gulf of Mexico and there have not been for 3 million years,” as Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., pointed out.

Markey, chairman of the energy subcommittee interrogating the oil bosses, turned to Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson. “How can Exxon Mobil have walruses in their response plan for the Gulf of Mexico?” the chairman inquired.

“It’s unfortunate that walruses were included,” the CEO answered.

Markey turned to ConocoPhillips’ James Mulva and Chevron’s John Watson. “How do you respond to having walruses in your plan?”

“It’s not appropriate,” Watson acknowledged.

“I agree,” Mulva said.

Goo goo g’joob! At least we have agreement on something.

The oil men had been summoned to Washington for a round of ritual humiliation, and they played their parts admirably: clueless from beginning to end. Executives from the other companies tried to paint BP as an oil-spill outlier that violated industry safety standards, but lawmakers – even the Republicans on the panel – did a good job of making the group of executives look like clowns in an overstuffed Volkswagen.

There was, for example, the fact that Chevron had named one of its new rigs in the Gulf “Blind Faith.” Then there was the awkward fact that government filings from three of the companies listed the name and number of the same technical “expert” – a man named Peter Lutz, who had died years earlier.

Markey asked Exxon Mobil’s Tillerson why in 2009 he filed “a response plan having a person who has been dead for four years.”

“The fact that Dr. Lutz died in 2005 does not mean his work and the importance of his work died with him,” Tillerson answered.

“It just seems to me that when you include Dr. Lutz’s phone number in your plan for response that you have not taken this responsibility seriously,” the chairman continued before putting the question of the dead expert to the ConocoPhillips boss.

“Well, the plans need to be updated more frequently,” Mulva allowed.

The oil men made things worse by giving their own version of the hearings involving big tobacco, 16 years ago this spring, when cigarette CEOs insisted that nicotine was not addictive. The oil executives said they are not so sure that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is increasing ocean acidity.

“I would not agree with that characterization,” said Lamar McKay, BP America’s chief executive.

Uncomfortable though it was for all the oil men, McKay was the pariah’s pariah as he sat at the end of the witness table and listened to the other executives disparage BP’s safety practices and call the spill preventable. All four of BP’s rivals said the company didn’t follow industry standards.

And McKay had no good defense for why BP low-balled the initial oil spill estimates, which prevented the government from mounting a sufficient response. “Are you ready to apologize to the American people for getting that number so wrong?” Markey asked.

McKay tried to blame the government – until Markey pointed out that the numbers came from a confidential BP document. “Right,” McKay was forced to admit.

Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, one of the senior Republicans on the panel, was not pleased with that answer. “Now, Mr. Markey had asked you for an apology,” he said. “I’m not asking for you to apologize. I’m asking you to resign.”

McKay reddened and stared impassively at the dais.

Among the few to give a full defense of the oil men was Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, the party-switching Republican who just lost a primary fight. He accused his colleagues of “childlike, accusatory, mean-spirited, petulant questioning,” proving “there’s really not a lack of natural gas here on Capitol Hill.” Griffith laughed at his own joke. Others groaned. Griffith upbraided his colleagues as being “disrespectful” of the oil men.

But the oil men did little to merit respect. For all the assurances they gave the government about their ability to respond to worst-case spills, in reality the oil companies are “not very well-equipped to deal with them,” as Exxon Mobil’s Tillerson put it.

If respect is what oil executives seek, they’ll have to do better than phantom walruses and dead professors.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is danamilbank@washpost.com.


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