06.20.10

BP's Biggest Congressional Hypocrites

Some of the toughest questions for embattled CEO Tony Hayward last week came from House members who don’t mind taking big checks from Big Oil.

Congress is the scourge of the oil industry, or so one might think from last Thursday's House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee grilling of BP CEO Tony Hayward, who spent most of his time in a meek defensive crouch. Hayward might take some comfort from the fact that many of his toughest interrogators are among Congress' biggest backers of offshore drilling and many have taken large donations from oil and gas interests.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)

There was no mystery to the motives of Joe Barton (R-TX), who almost stole the headlines from Hayward after he apologized to BP for the government's insistence it pay money into an escrow fund for victims of the spill. When it comes to oil industry donations, Barton is in a league of his own—according to the Center for Responsive Politics, he's take a mindboggling $1.44 million in oil and gas contributions in his career and $100,400 since 2009.

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Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) Apologizes to BP

Some of Hayward's toughest critics, however, don't lag that far behind Barton. Take Louisiana Democrat Charlie Melancon, for example, who has taken over $65,000 in oil and gas contributions since 2009.

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Tony Hayward Responds to Charlie Melancon

"The investigations are not going to bring back those 11 men to their kids," Melancon solemnly intoned to Hayward Thursday. But Melancon has little patience for President Obama's moratorium on drilling in the wake of the disaster, which was put in place to allow time to incorporate safety and emergency procedures that arise from the investigation into the disaster. Last week he joined a number of lawmakers at a press conference demanding Obama reverse his decision in order to protect industry profits. (Among the speakers, Rep. Barton, who offered such handy pearls of wisdom: "Well, we've got some bleeding and we can't stop it. What's the prognosis? Well, we just kill the patient. That doesn't happen!") Melancon has enthusiastically backed legislation expanding offshore drilling to new areas in recent years.

Rep. John Sullivan (R-OK)

Another high ranking recipient of oil and gas money on the committee this election cycle with $65,250 was Rep. John Sullivan (R-OK). Sullivan was particularly tough on Hayward, demanding the CEO acknowledge whether there was a "deficient safety culture at BP" and continuing to go after him in the press when the hearing ended. "Mr. Hayward, as CEO of that company, could not explain that culture they have," Sullivan told a reporter from a local news station. "I think that BP has cut corners. They did it to save money, and as a result there's been loss of life. Not only in this disaster, but one in Texas City refinery, and it's unconscionable."

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Rep. John Sullivan (R-OK) Criticizes BP Safety Record

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But Sullivan's biggest fears seem to be an overactive response to the disaster. He used his opening remarks to accuse the White House of being "focused on the politics of putting the oil and gas industry out of business" and warned in an earlier hearing on the disaster in May that "we should not use this tragedy as an excuse to roll back the gains we have made in finding—in finding new ways to develop our own energy resources, as we will need more oil and natural gas to help meet the growing demand for energy in the coming decades."

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who blasted Mr. Hayward for what she suggested was a failure to learn from BP's earlier mistakes in its safety procedures, has also been a harsh critic of federal regulations and environmental activists that she claims are holding back progress. "One of the reasons that we have tight supply lines right now... is because we have been so hesitant to go out and do that drilling and exploring because of EPA, OSHA, and environmental extremists," she said in an appearance on CNBC in 2006. Just three months ago, she led a campaign against the EPA over a contest it held in which participants submitted videos explaining why regulation was important. Her stated objection was the $2,500 prize money's impact on the deficit. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Blackburn has taken in $33,500 in contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2009 and $138,643 since 2002.

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Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) Accuses BP of Overlooking Safety

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA)

Then there's Phil Gingrey (R-GA). He wondered aloud whether Hayward would have made key decisions about the design of the well had he been out there on the Deepwater Horizon rig. When Hayward replied that he was not qualified to say, since he is not a drilling engineer, Gingrey responded: "I think you're copping out. You're the captain of the ship."

Yet Gingrey is a longtime advocate for drilling who warned in one 2008 newsletter to his constituents that America must not "allow our energy policy to be hijacked by environmental extremists who are content with the $4.11 per gallon gasoline." Gingrey has also gone out of his way to address concerns that drilling might threaten the nation's coasts. "People all too often want to say... 'not in my backyard.' But as a nation in a fuel crisis, we simply cannot afford to take any option off the table," he told the Associated Press in 2008. "We're not talking about setting up an oil rig on the sandbar where you collect seashells. We're talking about responsible exploration." Gingrey accepted $20,500 in contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2009.

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Phil Gingrey (R-GA) Slams BP

Hayward and BP may have to endure a rough patch of interrogations, interviews, and condemnations this year. But they should buck up. Clearly, if the company can keep calm and carry on, all indications are that their industry will survive even this epic disaster with its core of support on Capitol Hill intact—no matter how loudly members may howl.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.