WASHINGTON (CN) – BP America President Lamar McKay defended his company’s response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during congressional testimony Monday, calling BP’s efforts “transparent” as senators criticized the company. “We’re as frustrated as anyone,” he said. “We’re not scrambling around.”
McKay appeared in a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing 27 days after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and started an oil leak that emptied thousands of barrels of oil a day into the ocean.
Committee chair Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., asked whether there was “overreliance” on the blowout preventer, a device that seals off a well and was billed as the last line of defense in case of a sudden loss of pressure.
“It is the failsafe mechanism,” McKay said. “I can’t comment too much on reliance until we know what has happened.” He said the circumstances surrounding the spill were “unique and unprecedented.”
“You must feel as distressed as the rest of us — this stirring around to try to close the leak,” Lieberman said.
McKay said that before the spill, there were no requirements that oil companies have response plans for underwater spills, according to regulations under the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency with oversight of the industry.
Lieberman said he regretted the fact that MMS officials declined to testify at the hearing.
McKay said the company’s “immediate focus” to clean up the spill is on a riser tube inserted Sunday into the end of the existing, damaged riser. Gas and oil have been climbing to the surface since the leak, McKay said.
Responders also are shooting chemical dispersants directly at the leak, McKay said, which are designed to speed up biodegradation of the oil particles. McKay acknowledged that dispersants had never been used so far below sea level, but he stood by their use.
“They are less toxic than the oil itself,” McKay said, adding that BP believed they were more efficient underwater than at the surface.
McKay said BP will try inserting shredded fibrous materials at the top of the leak in order to plug it in a method known as the “top kill.” He said that effort could take up to two weeks.
McKay said BP began drilling the second of two relief wells on Sunday. The first relief well is currently 9,000 feet below sea level.
“We have a high level of confidence that the relief wells will permanently secure the well,” McKay said.
“We’re aware that hurricane season is upon us and we are doing everything we can to deal with this before that,” he said.
Senators complained that BP, according to MMS regulations, only submitted a regional oil spill response plan and not a vessel-specific plan.
“The MMS did not ask enough of you and the companies did not do enough themselves to prepare for an accident like the one that just occurred,” Lieberman said.
“Either the government should have demanded – before issuing a permit – that there be plans to deal with this kind of explosion or, in your own economic self interest, you should have done it yourself,” Lieberman said.
McKay seemed unfazed.
“BP will pay all necessary clean-up costs and is committed to paying all legitimate claims,” McKay said, adding that the company has paid more than $13 million as of Monday, mostly in lost-income interim payments.
He said they have a 24-hour call center, Web site, and 12 claims offices in the Gulf community, with five more to open this week.
“That sounds good, but a year from now will we be sitting here and learn of industries that aren’t covered by this?” asked Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
McKay said, “Our intention is to cover all legitimate claims associated with this incident. We intend to stick with this.”
Pryor asked if a seafood restaurant that gets its food from the gulf would qualify as a legitimate claim.
“We look to the Oil Pollution Act for guidance,” McKay said.
“What percentage of the oil has been recaptured?” Pryor asked.
“I don’t have a number,” McKay said, “But I think it’s a relatively small percentage.”
In her testimony, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, charged with coordinating federal response to disasters, said the amount of oil collected thus far was 6.6 million gallons.
When ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked about the adequacy of BP’s response, Napolitano said, “I did not expect that question.”
“I was going to ask you about the federal response, but I have a feeling I know what the answer would be,” Collins said with a smile.
“I would like to reserve judgment on the adequacy of the private response,” Napolitano said. She added that BP heads quickly assumed responsibility and showed up in Washington.
“Whether they should have used more or different equipment or more or different kinds of expertise – it would be premature for me to say,” Napolitano said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Napolitano’s opinion of the worst-case scenario for the spill.
“Worst-case scenario, we’ll be at this for quite awhile,” Napolitano said.
“And where is your level of optimism?” McCain asked.
“I’m just taking it day by day,” Napolitano said.