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 states 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 Shouldnt Cost Lives printed on them.