BP boss in hot seat as lawmakers demand oil spill answers

Angry US lawmakers skewered BP boss Tony Hayward Thursday, accusing him of stonewalling as he dodged a barrage of hostile questions seeking to lay bare the causes of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"I can't pass judgement on those decisions," Hayward told openly disbelieving members of a key House panel investigating the worst environmental disaster in US history. "I think it's too early to reach conclusions."

Just a day after BP won praise for bowing to White House demands to set up a 20-billion-dollar fund to pay compensation claims for Gulf residents facing economic ruin, the British energy giant's CEO was back in the hot seat.

Protester Diane Wilson is escorted from the hearing room
Protester Diane Wilson is escorted from the hearing room

Hayward said he would wait until BP finished its probe into the April 20 blast that killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, sank the rig, and sent oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico's waters.

"I wasn't involved in any decision-making," on how to drill, test, or secure the well, added Hayward, a 28-year oil industry veteran, drawing a charge from Democratic Representative Henry Waxman that he was "stonewalling."

Hayward's contrite opening remarks to the panel, and a vow that the British energy giant would repair the economic and environmental damage wrought on US southern shores, were quickly overshadowed as he declined to reveal specifics.

"Is today Thursday?" asked Cliff Stearns, a representative from oil-hit Florida, after Hayward repeatedly refused to give a straight "yes or no" answer as to what was to blame for the catastrophe.

Waving pictures of oiled birds, congressmen did not hide their frustration or derision in a piece of political theater before a barrage of media cameras.

Hayward, who has been dubbed the most hated man in America, offered an olive branch at the start of the day-long hearing, apologizing for the catastrophe.

"I know that only actions and results, not mere words ultimately can give you the confidence you seek. I give my pledge as the leader of BP that we will not rest until we make this right," he said.

"We and the entire industry will learn from this terrible event and emerge stronger, smarter and safer."

But in a sign of the tensions, a protestor with a blackened face and hands briefly disrupted the hearing. "You need to be charged with a crime, Tony," she shouted. "You need to go to jail!"

Despite a massive mobilization, millions of gallons of crude are fouling the shorelines of four US states, closing down vital fishing waters and hitting the region's lucrative tourist industry.

US experts believe between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels is spewing into the Gulf every day.

Hayward told lawmakers BP is now siphoning up an average of 20,000 barrels a day of oil to two processing ships on the surface.

And the US disaster coordinator, Admiral Thad Allen, said that by "sometime early next week" the company hoped to be containing 28,000 gallons -- some of which will be burnt off by one of the surface ships.

In some good news, Allen said drilling on a relief well, seen as the only way of permanently capping the spill, was ahead of schedule.

"Mid-August was the target date, they're actually ahead of schedule right now, but I'm not going to guarantee it will be earlier," Allen said, citing the meticulous work needed in carrying out the work safely.

"We should be very wary about hard deadlines," he cautioned.

On Wednesday BP agreed to set up a 20-billion-dollar escrow fund to pay compensation claims from thousands of Gulf businesses and residents, which it will pay into over the next four years.

The deal was struck after Hayward and BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg were summoned to the White House for talks with President Barack Obama.

News of the escrow fund deal with the US administration sent BP's share price soaring almost 10 percent on Thursday, after days of falls sparked by uncertainty over its future.

The fund will be run by prominent lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who managed compensation claims by victims of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and will be overseen by a panel of three judges who can hear appeals.

BP will fund the account in four annual payments of five billion dollars, the White House said in a statement, adding it was "neither a floor nor a ceiling" on BP's total liability for the disaster.

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