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Oil Spill Hearings Bring Out the Political Drama

The Gulf Coast oil spill engendered its share of Capitol Hill drama Tuesday, beginning with the moment executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton took their seats and waited for Senators to grill them about what caused the disaster.

It was befitting that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee moved the first hearing on the spill to the recently renamed Kennedy Caucus Room. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, was a master in the art of political theater and outrage.

And that hearing in the ornate Russell Senate Office Building room, the location of a long-ago probe into the sinking of the Titanic, was designed for maximum media attention, with six tables filled with reporters. Cameras clicked incessantly as the Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) entered the room and strode down the first row, shaking hands with the executives and their lobbyists and other aides.

It was a remarkably homogenous group. All but one executive in the front row were male. All were white.

As the executives made their introductions, several protesters ensured they also got their message out. Clad in pink shirts and hats, they jumped up and waved signs, saying “BP Kills Wildlife” and “Spill, Baby, Spill,” a variation on the popular GOP refrain from the 2008 election in support of offshore drilling, “Drill, baby, drill.”

Even the format for the Energy and Natural Resources hearing was a bit unusual. Generally committees hear first from the featured guests, saving the lesser-known experts for after the media and some lawmakers have departed.

But this time the star attractions — Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America; Steven Newman, president and CEO of Transocean; and Tim Probert, president of global business lines for Halliburton — were forced to sit quietly for 90 minutes while the lawmakers first heard from a petroleum engineer at Texas A&M University and a retired engineer with the Department of the Interior.

Frank Maisano, an energy expert with Bracewell & Giuliani, suggested that the committee may have been trying to set a more serious tone by first going over technical issues.

“They want to make sure this is about substance and not sensationalism,” Maisano said, adding that the Energy and Natural Resources Committee prides itself on being less flamboyant than some other panels.

Still, Senators did not spare BP and its partners some tough questioning. Even drilling supporters such as Sen. Jeff Session (R-Ala.), whose state’s coastline is threatened by the spill, suggested the oil industry had become overconfident and complacent.

Others such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) blasted BP for fostering a culture that did not promote safety. And numerous Senators chided the three companies for blaming each other for possible causes of the explosion.

The hearing drew its share of environmental activists, who showed up early to grab coveted seats in the room.

Ginger Cassady, a campaigner for the Rainforest Action Network, said she and seven others from her group arrived at the Russell building at 5:30 a.m. so they could get a prime position in line for the hearing when the building opened several hours later. Members of the group wore black T-shirts with the words “Energy Shouldn’t Cost Lives” printed on them.

David Dickson, director of the Western Arctic and Oceans program for the Alaska Wilderness League, was also waiting in a line that snaked around the corner from the third-floor room.

In light of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Dickson said he was concerned about proposed drilling off the coast of Alaska by Shell.

“It’s clearly very disturbing, and we don’t want to see it repeated,” he said.

Standing at the front of the line was Tighe Barry, one of the pink-shirt protesters who held up signs during the hearing.

Barry said he arrived as soon as the building opened at 7 but had to fight for his position with several people hired by oil industry lobbyists to save their places in line.

“I’m tired of Big Oil taking my beaches from me,” said Barry, who grew up in Florida and now lives California.

The oil companies, of course, had their teams on hand. At McKay’s side were David Nagel, executive vice president and head of BP’s Washington, D.C., office, and Elizabeth Reicherts, BP’s senior director for U.S. government and international affairs. Scott Dean, a BP public affairs officer who had flown in from Chicago, was also there to tend to the media.

The oil industry trade group American Petroleum Institute was also helping out, blasting e-mails to reporters during the hearing, announcing that the two industry task forces set up in response to the oil rig incident held their first meeting in Houston on Monday.

The political theater on Capitol Hill is expected to continue today with BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Some of the protesters are also planning to trail the oil executives. But Barry, who waved signs at the morning session, found himself standing outside the hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Tuesday afternoon as the Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), was about to hear from the oil executives.

Barry complained that the committee held the hearing in too small a room.

“They’re trying to box the public out,” he said.

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