WASHINGTON — Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee expressed concerns over the causes and cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill Tuesday after a two-hour, closed-door meeting with three officials from BP, Halliburton and Transocean on the spill and efforts to cap it.
Another three officials from the companies attended the meeting via conference call.
"I must tell you that I have concerns in this particular case about the attention to safety, the attention to maintenance, the attention to using best available control technology and best monitoring practices," said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the committee.
After his own meeting with the BP executives, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a staunch opponent of offshore drilling, said that the BP officials had been "very forthcoming" in their answers but had dodged the question of whether the company would exceed the $75 million liability cap on oil spills. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced legislation Tuesday that would raise the limit to $10 billion.
BP Group Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward had pledged earlier in the day that BP would honor "all legitimate claims" for business losses in a process that he said already had begun. He said the $75 million liability cap wasn't a limit for the company.
"It's not clear that the cap is particularly relevant," he said. "All legitimate claims for business damages will be honored."
Hayward also announced four $25 million grants — to Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida — for costs associated with the oil spill.
On Capitol Hill, Barton said the oil company executives who'd attended the closed-door briefing for the energy committee acted like "deer in the headlights."
When he was asked whether the executives were helpful, Barton said, "I think they were trying to be."
"I'm not satisfied with the answers, but I don't think they were stonewalling," he said.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said BP should spare no expense in cleaning up the spill.
"BP reported making $6 billion in profit in the first quarter of 2010; $6 million a day is what they say they're spending" on the leak, Markey said. "My belief is that there should be no limit on what they spend in the short run in order to ensure that the leak is ended, and ended as soon as possible. The consequences are absolutely catastrophic if something does not occur to stop this leak."
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., was unsatisfied with the executives' briefing.
"I went to the briefing expecting to hear that BP is committed to paying for the cleanup, that they accept full responsibility, and to hear that the situation is under control," Castor said. "Unfortunately, that is not at all what I heard. Their answers were vague and lacked specificity, and sometimes they didn't have the answers at all."
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said he wasn't surprised that BP was involved in the gulf leak. He said his subcommittee had investigated several spills in BP's drilling in Alaska's North Slope, including a 2006 spill that resulted in more than 200,000 gallons of oil leaking into the tundra.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, said Tuesday that the government's chief focus should be on "how we contain this devastation." There'd be plenty of time later, she said, to "assign blame."
Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said her panel would hold a hearing on the spill Tuesday.
"We'll have a chance at that time to speak with the folks from BP and from Transocean to try to determine are we doing all that we can to contain the devastation," she said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., chastised anti-drilling lawmakers who've expressed concern about the leak's impact on the gulf's fishermen.
"I sense a little hypocrisy going here," she said. "I didn't have one senator from New Jersey, Florida or Connecticut mention how badly they felt about the fishermen when they lost their boats in Hurricane Katrina."
(e-mail: wdouglas(at)mcclatchydc.com, mrecio(at)mcclatchydc.com, lclark(at)mcclatchydc.com)