WASHINGTON (CN) – ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson told a House subcommittee Tuesday that the oil industry is “not well equipped” to handle major oil spills, but joined other oil executives in trying to distance himself from BP. He said his company would have drilled the Deepwater Horizon well differently and has a better response plan should anything go wrong. Lawmakers didn’t buy it. “Exxon and the other companies are just as unprepared to respond to a spill as BP,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
“It is a fact that we are not well equipped to deal with this,” Tillerson acknowledged in a House Energy and Environmental Subcommittee hearing, flanked by top executives from the nation’s largest oil companies: BP America, Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp.
The non-BP executives tried to assure legislators that they would have designed the BP well differently.
“We would not have drilled the well the way they did,” Tillerson said, adding that ExxonMobil would have used different cementing, locking seal ring and other techniques.
Chevron CEO John Watson agreed, saying the casing design and mechanical barriers of the failed BP well “appear to be different than what we would use.”
“Chevron uses a safer well design,” he said.
Watson said that Chevron’s operating procedures would have prevented the incident from occurring in the first place.
But congressmen slammed the oilmen for claiming they would do things differently in the event of a well explosion, saying their oil spill response plans were “virtually identical.”
Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., pointed out identical wording in BP and ExxonMobil’s “cookie-cutter” plans, and said Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell all listed spill response strategies of “top kills” and “jumk shots,” which have failed to work for BP in the Gulf.
“These plans are just paper exercises,” Waxman said. “BP failed miserably when confronted with a real leak, and ExxonMobil and the other companies would do no better.”
In the companies’ worst-case scenario reports, BP said it could handle a spill of 250,000 barrels a day. Chevron and Shell said they could handle 200,000 barrels a day, ExxonMobil said it could handle 166,000 barrels a day and ConocoPhillips said it could handle 40,000 barrels a day.
Current estimates for the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf are up to 40,000 barrels a day.
Subcommitee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., pointed out that four of the companies’ plans for the Gulf of Mexico listed walruses, “which have not called the Gulf home for 3 million years.”
“It’s unfortunate that walruses were included,” Tillerson said, “and it’s an embarrassment.”
Markey also said ExxonMobil’s plan listed the telephone number of a scientist who died four years ago, when the plan was filed. “How can you justify having a person who was dead for four years?” Markey asked. “Is that also an embarrassment?”
“Well, it is,” Tillerson said.
“It’s 2010,” Markey said. “The only technology you seem to be relying on is a Xerox machine to put together your spill response plans.”
Stupak said ExxonMobil dedicated 40 pages of its oil spill response plan to dealing with the media, including tips on maintaining “on-camera skill proficiency,” but only nine pages on protecting wildlife and five pages on protecting natural resources.
ExxonMobil “meticulously anticipated virtually every conversation the company might need to have,” but wrote little about “actually controlling the spill,” the congressman said. “While great for public relations, these plans are virtually worthless when a spill actually occurs.”
Markey then harangued BP for continually “lowballing” the amount of oil flowing from the broken wellhead. In the days immediately after the spill, BP estimated that 1,000 barrels per day were leaking from the well, estimates that have since skyrocketed.
“Are you ready to apologize to the American people for getting that number so wrong?” Markey asked.
“Those were not BP estimates,” BP America President Lamar McKay said. “They were unified area command estimates.”
“We need you to admit that you knew or should have known,” Markey said. “It’s either deliberate deception or gross incompetence. On the day that you are ready to apologize, that is the day that we can begin to move forward.”
“We are sorry for everything the Gulf Coast are going through,” McKay said.
As McKay apologized, non-BP executives made firm statements about the stability of their drilling practices.
Watson said Chevron’s operations in hundreds of deepwater wells around the world are “safe and environmentally sound.”
Shell Oil President Marvin Odum said his company had “robust and multiple barriers in our wells” and 24-hour well monitoring for pressure changes.
“I think the independent investigation will show that this accident was indeed preventable,” Watson said. “America needs the energy, and we can produce that energy safely.”
Odum and Watson also said they had policies where any worker could request to stop operations if they saw something unsafe.
Markey noted that while the five companies earned $289 billion in profits over the last three years and spent $39 billion in new oil and gas exploration, they put a “paltry” $20 million annually toward developing safety plans and researching oil spill response – “less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their profits,” Markey said.