Top oil executives testifying in Washington this week on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico all agree on one thing - someone else is to blame for the oil rig explosion that has sparked a major environmental disaster.
The massive oil slick has hit US shores
Leading oil executives avoided taking full responsibility for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as congressional hearings got underway this week in Washington.
"I hear one message, and the message is: don't blame me," Republican Senator John Barrasso told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. "Well, shifting this blame does not get us very far."
Lamar McKay, president of BP America, said during his testimony that the rig's owner Transocean was responsible. The Swiss drilling company leased oil giant BP the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded on April 20 and subsequently sank.
"Why did Transocean's blowout preventer, the key fail-safe mechanism, fail to operate?" McKay told the committee on Tuesday. This mechanism is intended to shut off the flow of oil and gas in case of an accident.
McKay, president of BP America, is responding to senators' questions
But Transocean's chief executive officer Steven Newman said in turn that BP as the operator was accountable.
"All offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator," Newman told the hearing. He said the drilling process had been completed "and the well already had been sealed with casing and cement" by Halliburton.
Tim Probert of Halliburton, which was to have poured cement to close the freshly drilled well until a production rig was installed, insisted his company had not placed the final cement plug at the time of the accident. He said his company was simply following BP's instructions, to which it was "contractually bound."
Mounting environmental threat
BP has accepted responsibility for the cleanup and is leading efforts to stop an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil from flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every day. It plans to make another attempt this week to cover the ruptured well with a so-called "top hat." This is a much smaller version of the giant dome it tried to place over the weekend without success.
If the measure is unsuccessful, the spill could become the worst oil leak in US history, according to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson.
"Until we stop the release of oil from the sea bed, it has the potential to be worse than anything that we've seen," Jackson told CNN.
Birds are extremely threatened by the oil
Louisiana's Mississippi River delta is a major migratory spot for rare birds and contains vital spawning grounds for fish, shrimp and crabs. Earlier this week, environmentalist group Greenpeace found first traces of oil washed up on the southernmost tip of the state.
The oil onshore at Port Eads was evidence that it was reaching the mouth of the Mississippi, said Greenpeace. This put even more species of Louisiana's coastal habitats at risk, including animal and plant species that thrive only in these wetlands.
"While most of the environmental damage so far from this spill has been out of sight, the oil we saw on the southern delta of the Mississippi River is a sad indicator of what is in store for the shoreline ecosystem," said conservation specialist Rick Steiner in a Greenpeace statement. Steiner is well-known for his work during the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.
"As BP scrambles to stop millions of gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf, oil is washing up in the irreplaceable wetlands at the southern tip of Louisiana," Greenpeace's Deputy Campaigns Director Dan Howells said. "Immeasurable damage has been done."
A blow for the local economy
The region's fishing industry, as well as the tourism sector - two of the Gulf's key industries - have also been hard hit.
The oil spill is only a few miles away from the beaches in the tourism Mecca Biloxi, Mississippi, which has just recently recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"The oil spill could be a catastrophe of epic proportions if we get that here," mayor AJ Holloway told Deutsche Welle. "If it comes on our beaches, it would hurt our tourism business tremendously. Our industry for the city of Biloxi is tourism."
There are fears the oil spill will cripple the local seafood industry
In a body blow to the local economy, the federal government has suspended fishing in parts of the Gulf. Attorney Judy Guice is preparing legal action against BP on behalf of those affected by the fishing ban.
"BP has needlessly endangered the public," Guice told Deutsche Welle. "One of the primary industries here on the Gulf coast is the seafood industry - our fishermen, our shrimpers, our oystermen. And they are losing their livelihoods as we speak."
About five dozen fishermen have already contacted Guice and more are joining the fight daily. But she said it will be an uphill battle.
"Fighting against a big company like BP is always extremely difficult, very challenging and they fight tooth and nail," Guice said. "But I'm confident that with the correct representation, those who have suffered losses will be compensated."
McKay said in the Senate hearing that BP would pay "all legitimate claims" of economic damages well over a $75 million legal ceiling.
A political rethink?
Environmentalist groups in the US hope the catastrophe will prompt Americans to rethink their attitudes towards energy use. New leases on offshore drilling in US waters - a measure which President Barack Obama backed just months ago - have been suspended at least until the end of May.
But BP's McKay ended his testimony on Tuesday by stressing the importance of offshore drilling for US energy needs.
"Tragic and unforeseen as this accident was, we must not lose sight of why BP and other energy companies are operating in the offshore, including the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "The Gulf provides one in four barrels of oil produced in the United States - a resource our economy requires."
Author: Sabina Casagrande/afp/dpa/reuters
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar