Congress opens probe into Gulf Coast oil spill

BP and other oil industry executives may discover this week just how heavy the boot at their throats can get.

Three congressional committees are set to open investigations of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was triggered by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig last month.

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Since then, an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day have streamed into Gulf waters, threatening fragile coastal habitats and reconfiguring the politics of offshore drilling.

BP is also under pressure from the executive branch; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has pledged the administration will keep its boot to BP’s throat to make sure the oil giant stops and cleans up the spill.

“BP is under huge pressure to justify their practices and to explain what could have gone wrong to the extent that they know,” said Kenneth Green, an energy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

BP officials have tried to contain the spill by lowering a giant steel and concrete structure designed to capture most of the oil flowing from the ruptured well and pump it to ships on the surface. But as dome approached the sea floor a mile below the surface, a slush of gas and water clogged the top and made it buoyant.

Now company officials are studying using a smaller box to cap the leak and sending debris into the rupture in hopes of clogging the well.

On Tuesday morning, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be the first to hear from executives.

Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America; Steven Newman, president and chief executive of Transocean; and Tim Probert, chief health, safety and environmental officer at Halliburton, are expected to testify.

BP leased the drilling rig from Transocean. Halliburton supplied workers on the rig.

The same three executives are also scheduled to appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee later that day.

The House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, meanwhile, will review the spill on Wednesday.

BP executives, including CEO Tony Hayward, have scrambled to limit the political damage from the spill by meeting with members of Congress.

So far, however, they seem to have done little to dampen criticism of the company. Several lawmakers are supporting legislation that would increase BP’s liability for economic damages from the spill, from a $75 million cap to $10 billion.

Hayward has pledged to pay to clean up the spill and for all “legitimate” damage claims.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Energy and Environment subcommittee, emerged from a closed-door meeting with oil company executives to issue a warning to the industry.

“There is going to be a blistering, scalding indictment of the practices the industry engaged in to avoid the kinds of implementation of safeguards that could have removed the likelihood or possibility of this kind of accident occurring,” Markey said last week.