Gulf spill: 'beyond what we anticipated'

By Ben Rooney, staff reporter

NEW YORK ( -- BP did not have a plan to deal with the kind of oil rig rupture that is now spewing thousands of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the president of the company's U.S. operations told Congress on Monday.

"There was not a response plan per se," Lamar McKay, president of BP America, told senators at the first of several Congressional hearings this week about the spill off the Louisiana coast.

McKay stressed that BP began working immediately to contain the spill that developed after the drill rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank last month, killing 11 employees.

The company's efforts have been hindered by the difficulty of working at depths of 5,000 feet below the surface.

"We're not scrambling around," said McKay, who described several steps BP has taken, with varying degrees of success, to manage the disaster. "But, no, I cannot say there was a plan to hit every one of these methods."

BP announced separately that it had begun transporting some oil to a drillship on the surface after a successfully inserting a tube into the damaged drill pipe.

McKay said he was not sure how much oil has been captured using this method. "I think it's a relatively small percentage," he said.

Additionally, McKay echoed comments he made in a House hearing last week, saying the cause of the spill is still under investigation, and that it's too soon to say what happened.

"We cannot draw any conclusions until all the facts are known," he said. "At the same time, we are fully engaged in response to the devastating events."

Senators also questioned two federal officials about the government's response to the crisis: Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Rear Admiral Peter Neffenger of the Coast Guard.

"The federal government will continue to do everything in its power to ensure that BP stops the leaks, contains the spill, and mitigates the spill's impact on the environment, the economy, and public health," Napolitano said.

She said the government has mobilized 17,000 federal, state and local workers and thousands of volunteers in response to the disaster. In addition, more than 550 vessels have been deployed along with dozens of aircraft, she added.

But the government's ability to repair damaged oil infrastructure deep below the surface remains limited, she added. "Frankly, the federal government has limited capability and expertise in responding to wellhead incidents on the sea floor," said Napolitano.

Rear Admiral Peter Neffenger said the Coast Guard had trained for a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, but he acknowledged that the maritime agency had not prepared for such a large spill in deep waters.

"Clearly, this is beyond what we anticipated," he said. "At a minimum we are going to have to go back and look at our planning factors."

BP has stated repeatedly that it will cover all of the clean up costs and will pay all "legitimate" claims of loss and damages caused by the spill.

Some lawmakers want to raise the liability cap on what oil companies must pay for losses resulting from a spill, which now stands at $75 million. McKay said BP has so far paid about $12 million to small businesses hurt by the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He also said BP has made grants totaling $25 million to four U.S. states to help protect coastal areas endangered by the growing oil slick.

Separately on Monday, a White House official confirmed that President Obama will use an executive order to establish a Presidential Commission to investigate the spill. It was not clear when President Obama will formally make the announcement or sign the executive order.  To top of page

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