Executives from three oil giants point fingers at one another under tough questioning from U.S. senate committee.

The three oil industry titans behind the Gulf of Mexico spill all sought to blame one another under questioning from senators on Tuesday (May 11), as troops fanned out along the Louisiana coastline to limit the damage caused by the environmental disaster.

With at least four million gallons of oil now polluting the gulf, the executives of BP America, which owned the well, Transocean, which owned the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig, and Halliburton, which cemented the well, were trying to avoid direct blame for the April 20 incident.

As the energy and natural resources committee hearing got under way, Senate staffers joked it could be subtitled Scenes from an Execution. But some of the worst damage may have been done by the executives themselves as the three companies all tried to shift the responsibility.

In his opening statement, Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who heads the committee, suggested a fatal combination of errors. “We will likely discover that there was a cascade of failures: technical, human and regulatory,” he said. The industry executives — while professing to be too caught up in the cleanup to draw conclusions about the causes of the catastrophe — were more singleminded. BP America's chief executive, Lamar McKay, blamed Transocean, the operator of the rig. “BP hired Transocean to drill that well. Transocean had the responsibility for ensuring the safety of that operation,” he said. He pinned the spill on the failure of a blowout preventer, a 450—tonne set of valves on the ocean floor.

Transocean's Steven Newman was having none of that. In his testimony he said BP was calling the shots on the rig. “Offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator, in this case BP,” he said.

It was BP that drew up the drilling plan, and BP engineers were in charge when the drilling wound up and the crew prepared to cap the well. He rejected any suggestion of a failure of the blowout preventer, which is supposed to stop a blowout. “The most significant clue is that these events occurred after the well construction process had been completed,” Newman told the committee.

That pointed the finger at Halliburton, which was brought in to cement the lining of the well, in effect sealing off the reservoir. But Halliburton, unsurprisingly, was equally unwilling to take the fall. Its health, safety and environment officer, Tim Probert, started off by warning against a premature rush to judgment — then took his turn at assigning blame. Like Newman, he told the hearing that Halliburton had carried out its work according to BP's specifications.

As the hearings played out on Capitol Hill, the Louisiana national guard deployed troops in Blackhawk helicopters to drop sandbags along the shoreline. Near Grand Isle, they hurried to plug one gap that left environmentally sensitive marshland exposed to potential pollution from encroaching oil.

Much of the evidence at the Senate hearing was technical, involving the various protective devices that should — if functioning properly — prevent catastrophe. But BP and the other companies faced tough questions about contingency plans in the event of a spill, with senators asking why a containment dome and stocks of dispersants were not on standby. “What I see here is a company flailing around trying to deal with a worst—case scenario,” Robert Menendez, a New Jersey senator, told BP.

The three companies were also forced to admit under questioning that they were conducting no research into how to deal with deep water spills. BP, in particular, was singled out over fatal accidents in Texas, as well as safety violations in Alaska. The company was accused of a “pattern of accidents”But the senators' anger stretched beyond the companies, with pointed questions about the U.S. government's regulatory regime. In anticipation, the Obama administration said on Tuesday it was splitting the functions of the mineral and management service, the regulatory body in charge of licensing oil and gas operations. Under the new structure, one body would approve offshore drilling and collect the billions of dollars of royalties, and another would monitor safety and environmental standards. The hearing was the first of a series in Congress into the oil spill. The most immediate political casualty of the spill in America could be the climate change and energy bill, due to be formally unveiled today, earlier versions of which included extensions for offshore drilling. BP and others have acknowledged that the aftermath of the spill could well change future offshore drilling operations in regions beyond America. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

More In: Comment | Opinion