From the oil industry’s top lobbyist to a roustabout who worked on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig, those involved in the BP oil spill descended on Capitol Hill on Thursday as lawmakers sought to get a better handle on the environmental crisis.
It was a day of fast-paced events that included President Barack Obama’s announcing a six-month moratorium on new offshore oil-drilling permits, while BP said it was making progress in capping the leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
Congressional committees, meanwhile, held a slew of hearings in which they heard not only from executives at BP and the American Petroleum Institute, but also from two workers on the rig and the father of a mud engineer killed during the explosion that triggered the spill.
Keith Jones, a trial lawyer from Baton Rouge, La., fought back tears as he testified before the House Judiciary Committee about his son Gordon, who was a contract worker on the rig.
Jones, who described his son as having a keen sense of humor and devotion to his young family, flashed photographs on large screens in the committee room of Gordon teaching his 2-year-old son how to swing a golf club.
“It’s the last golf lesson he will get from his dad,” said Jones, who came to the hearing with another son, Chris.
Jones told the committee that when Gordon’s wife, Michelle, tells her sons about their father, “she’s not going to show them a pay stub.”
But he also said that under current maritime law, the family will only be able to recover economic losses. But he asked the lawmakers to force the companies, including London-based BP and Swiss-based Transocean, the owner of the rig, to pay punitive damages as well.
“If you want these companies, one of which is based in Great Britain and another in Switzerland, to make every effort to make sure their employees don’t act as these did, putting American lives at risk, you must make certain that they are exposed to pain in the only place they can feel it — their bank accounts,” he said.
Two workers who survived the explosion — Douglas Brown, a chief mechanic, and Stephen Stone, a roustabout — described their harrowing escape from the rig and the health effects they have suffered since.
Stone said he has had trouble sleeping, has experienced memory loss and had developed a nervous twitch in his eye.
He testified that soon after the incident, a Transocean representative met him at a Denny’s restaurant and offered him $5,000 for the loss of his possessions in return for signing a document that said he had not suffered injuries. Stone said he refused to sign the part about no injuries and instead hired a lawyer whose firm had dealt with the explosion at a BP plant in Texas in 2005.
“I never would have expected for my company, Transocean, to treat me like a criminal after I survived such a disaster by making me submit to a drug test, and then try to tempt or trick me into giving my legal rights by signing forms without a lawyer present,” he said at the hearing.
Brown, who was diagnosed with a fracture in his left leg, said the rig’s engine room where he worked had seen its staffing cut by half.
Darryl Willis, vice president of resources for BP, told the panel the company was committed to evaluating claims from those affected by the disaster. He said the company had already paid out 13,500 claims worth $37 million, adding that the company would exceed the $75 million cap on economic damages that is written in current law.
Rachel Clingman, general counsel of Transocean, also said her company “was prepared to meet all of our legal obligations.”
The Judiciary Committee is considering whether to increase the $75 million limit, as some Democrats have advocated, and to change the Death on the High Seas Act, which was approved in 1920 and limits economic damages for those killed at sea. Congress approved an exception to the act in 2000 to grant noneconomic damages to families of victims who died when Trans World Airlines’ Flight 800 crashed off Long Island, N.Y.
The American Association of Justice, which represents the nation’s trial lawyers and is pushing for changes in the liability limits, helped coordinate the testimony of the families and workers affected by the rig explosion.
The trial lawyers group was contacted by the Judiciary Committee to help find the families through their members in the region, according to an AAJ spokeswoman. Representatives from the trial lawyers also attended the hearing, where they offered to arrange interviews with those testifying.
Some of the Judiciary Committee Democrats said they supported higher liability limits. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who noted that she represented Houston, where BP and Transocean both have corporate offices, called the $75 million cap “a joke.”
“If you’re going to play, you have got to pay,” the Texas Democrat said.
But Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Congress should be “careful not to overreact.”
The Texas Congressman also said that he does not want a ban on offshore drilling.
At another oil-spill hearing in a neighboring House office building, Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, also warned that an extended moratorium on offshore oil drilling could result in economic harm.
In testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, Gerard said deep-water drilling provided about 70 percent of the oil and 36 percent of the natural gas from Gulf of Mexico production. Later, in a response to Obama’s announcement, Gerard said the decision to postpone oil development off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and areas of the Gulf has “the potential to significantly erode our energy and economic security.”
While Gerard warned of prolonged bans on offshore drilling, he acknowledged in an interview that his oil industry group was taking “a pause” in the media campaign it had been underwriting to push for more energy exploration.
Gerard said his group’s current focus was on dealing with the disaster and coordinating the response within the industry.
“We need to work on education, outreach,” Gerard said.
The oil spill has emerged as the first major crisis for Gerard, who has made major staff changes at API since he was hired to head the trade group in 2009. But Gerard suggested that he was not overwhelmed by the disaster.
“Just another day at the office,” he said in the Capitol Hill interview before he gave testimony.
Among those testifying before the Natural Resources Committee were Lamar McKay, president of BP North America, and Steven Newman, president of Transocean.
Both men have spent a good deal of their time on Capitol Hill since the spill, answering questions from various committees. As of Thursday, a BP spokesman said, McKay had testified before seven committees in the past three weeks. Willis, BP’s vice president for resources, has testified before two panels.
BP has also been running newspaper ads, both in national publications and Gulf Coast newspapers, explaining what it is doing to stem the spill and how its claim process works.
While executives from BP and its partners are becoming familiar figures on Capitol Hill, testifying before Congressional panels was a new experience for the rig workers. Dressed in suits, they sat at the end of a long witness table for several hours as committee members questioned the panelists.
Brown, the mechanic, who is from Vancouver, Wash., called it “a real learning experience.” Stone, who is from Houston, said he doesn’t follow politics much and didn’t know who his Member of Congress is.
“I flip on C-SPAN maybe,” he said. “But I’m pretty much out of the loop.”