WASHINGTON — Congress called BP and its drilling partners to account Tuesday for a "cascade of failures" behind the spreading gulf oil spill, zeroing in on a crucial chain of events at the deep-sea well head just before an explosion consumed the rig and set off the catastrophic rupture.
In back-to-back Senate inquiries, lawmakers chastised executives of the three companies at the heart of the massive spill over attempts to shift the blame to each other. They were asked to explain why better preparations had not been made to head off the accident.
"Let me be really clear," Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America, told the hearing. "Liability, blame, fault — put it over here."
He said: "Our obligation is to deal with the spill, clean it up and make sure the impacts of that spill are compensated, and we're going to do that."
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By "over here," McKay meant the witness table at which BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives sat shoulder to shoulder. And despite his acknowledgment of responsibility, each company defended its operations and raised questions about its partners.
Lawmakers compared the calamity to some of history's most notorious disasters from sea to space in the first congressional inquiry into the April 20 explosion.
In the crowded hearing room, eight young activists sat in quiet protest, with black T-shirts saying, "Energy Shouldn't Cost Lives." Several wore black painted spots near their eyes to symbolize teardrops made from oil.
Said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, "If this is like other catastrophic failures of technological systems in modern history, whether it was the sinking of the Titanic, Three Mile Island or the loss of the Challenger, we will likely discover that there was a cascade of failures and technical and human and regulatory errors."
The corporate finger pointing prompted an admonishment from Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska that "we are all in this together" in trying to shut off the oil and find a safer way to exploit vital energy.
"This accident has reminded us of a cold reality, that the production of energy will never be without risk or environmental consequence," she said. Still, "there will be no excuse" if operators are found to have broken the law.
Failure to plug the leak was intensifying impatience, from the contaminated gulf waters to the White House.
"The president is frustrated with everything, the president is frustrated with everybody, in the sense that we still have an oil leak," said spokesman Robert Gibbs. "That includes us, that includes everybody that's involved with this."