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Oil Execs Grilled Over Spill Readiness; Fire Delays Containment Effort

Lamar McKay, Chairman and President BP America, Inc., walks away from a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing; Mark Wilson/Getty Images

*Updated 4:47 p.m. ET *| BP PLC spokesman Bill Salvin told The Associated Press Tuesday afternoon that a drillship resumed capturing oil about five hours after a fire caused an emergency shutdown. He said there was no damage reported to the containment cap, and the Coast Guard approved restarting the system.

“If we believed it was damaged, we would not have restarted the operation,” he said.

Salvin was unsure how long the fire lasted but said it was apparently small and confined to the top of the ship’s derrick.

Ahead of President Obama’s primetime address on the Gulf oil leak disaster, members of Congress blasted oil company executives Tuesday for having “cookie cutter” and “virtually worthless” plans to react to an accident in deep water.

Executives from five major companies were summoned to testify before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing as lawmakers consider raising limits on oil spill penalties and new restrictions on the industry.

“Companies operating in the Gulf have operated safely and reliably,” said BP America chief Lamar McKay. “But, the failure of processes, systems and/or equipment must be and can be addressed to restore America’s confidence in the industry’s ability to continue providing the resources consumers need.”

When pressed on how companies could handle a worst-case oil spill scenario, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson admitted “we are not well-equipped to deal with them.”

“We’ve never represented anything different than that. That’s why emphasis is always on preventing these things from occurring, because when they happen we are not very well-equipped to deal with them,” he said.

Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat and one of the lawmakers heading a probe of the disaster, slammed the companies’ offshore accident response plans, singling out Exxon Mobil for its a 40-page media response strategy, including pre-written talking points.

“Exxon Mobil’s plan appears more concerned about public perception than wildlife protection given the fact that their media plan is five times longer than its plan for protecting wildlife,” Stupak said, adding that all of the companies’ plans were “virtually worthless when an actual spill occurs.”

California Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat, said the companies had submitted nearly identical “cookie cutter” strategies to deal with a major spill which all included techniques that had failed to stem the flow of oil from BP’s well.

“We found that none of the five companies has an adequate plan,” he said.

Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce committee, said major oil companies have an interest in containing the spill, but he also said they needed better spill response plans. “You can’t have a contingency plan that says cross your fingers and hope the blowout preventer works,” he said.

McKay looked drawn but emotionless when repeatedly asked to apologize for underestimating how much oil was gushing into the Gulf.

“We are sorry for everything the Gulf Coast is going through, we are sorry for that and the spill,” he said, adding that BP did not have the technology to measure the amount of leaking oil.

The New York Times has been live-blogging the testimony here.

Meanwhile, BP announced Tuesday afternoon that a fire that may have been caused by a lightning bolt struck the ship capturing oil from the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico, halting containment operations.

The fire aboard the Discoverer Enterprise, where engineers are siphoning about 630,000 gallons of oil a day through a cap on top of the well, was quickly extinguished and no one was injured. The fire happened in a vent pipe leading from a tank on the Enterprise where processed oil is stored.

BP said it hopes to resume containing oil from the well sometime later Tuesday.
“At the moment, there’s no capture, no containment going on, but we’ll start up the Enterprise when it’s safe to do so,” BP spokesman Robert Wine said, quoted The Associated Press.

BP will survey the entire containment system, including the cap over the well, for possible damage from the fire.

We’ll have much more on the ongoing oil disaster and the president’s primetime address on Tuesday’s NewsHour and here on The Rundown.

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