Every drama needs a villain. And with images of toxic crude oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of more than a million gallons a day, Democrats in Washington have seized on Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, and the chiefs of the five largest oil companies in the world as the villains most responsible for the ongoing disaster in the Gulf.
Beginning Tuesday, President Barack Obama and members of Congress will make a full frontal assault on Hayward and Big Oil, hauling the executives before congressional panels, into the Oval Office, and before the court of public opinion using the presidential bully pulpit to put the heat and the blame on BP and Big Oil until somebody, somewhere figures out how to plug the leaching mess.
The best possible result, Democrats in Washington say, will be a White House that appears in charge of, but not responsible for, the disaster in the Gulf, and a Democratic Congress with enough momentum to either pass sweeping energy and climate change legislation this year, or blame Republicans for blocking the measure and protecting Big Oil in the process.
Big Oil's week on the hot seat actually began on Monday, when President Obama made his fourth trip to the gulf region to meet with governors of the four states most damaged by the spill.
After visiting a Coast Guard staging center in Mississippi and eating a seafood lunch, Obama called the disaster "an ongoing assault" on the Gulf Coast and assured local residents that help is on the way.
"The full resources of our federal government are being mobilized to confront this disaster," he said, adding later, "We will hold BP responsible."
The president also explained that he made the trip in preparation for his meeting later in the week with BP executives.
"We're gathering up facts, stories right now so that we have an absolutely clear understanding about how we can best present to BP the need to make sure that individuals and businesses are dealt with in a fair manner and in a prompt manner," Obama said Monday.
The president's restrained rhetoric will likely to be in short supply Tuesday, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee hears from the chief executives of the five largest oil companies in the country, including BP of America's Lamar McKay. He'll be joined by Chevron's John Watson, Conoco Phillips's James Mulva, Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil, and Marvin Odum from Shell Oil.
While the hearing is ostensibly intended to assess the safety of oil drilling in American waters, it is certain to become a group flogging for the CEOs by lawmakers eager to channel their constituents' anger and frustration over the oil spill and its catastrophic effects.
"What we want to hear is the truth," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the hearings. "What we want to hear is why are they -- they in the energy business -- why aren't they telling us the truth? I'm not painting the rest of them with the BP brush; I think they are probably disappointed in BP themselves, but that's up to them to say."
On Thursday, Tony Hayward will appear alone before the same committee, but leaders have put Hayward on notice that his hearing will be more than a public shaming.
In a letter to him on Sunday, the chairmen of the committee and subcommittee warned him that the preliminary results of their investigation of BP's role in the Deepwater Horizon accident have been "troubling."
"The committee's investigation is raising serious questions about the decisions made by BP in the days and hours before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon," Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) wrote. "BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure."
Hayward's appearance will come after President Obama meets with BP's chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, at the White House on Wednesday, and delivers a prime-time address to the nation about the disaster Tuesday night.
Democratic aides say they expect Obama to detail the administration's response in the gulf so far, and more broadly, to "go deep" in an aggressive call for a new national energy policy to reduce American dependence on oil. He's also expected to call for a comprehensive climate change bill with a controversial cap-and-trade mechanism to reduce carbon emissions.
Democrats say they want the end result of all of this theater to be a favorable environment to move a series of legislative fixes, including a rewrite of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was written after the Exxon Valdez spill but before deep water drilling became widespread, as well as Democratic proposals to eliminate the $75 million liability cap on companies drilling in American waters.
"Let's look at the larger picture of how we do whatever we do to meet the needs of our economy to preserve our planet to clean up the air, to create jobs, to have a national security issue energy policy that reduces air dependence on foreign oil," Pelosi said Friday. "It is a absolute must that we have an energy bill."
An internal document circulating among Democrats on Monday echoed Pelosi's calculation that public support for energy legislation had gone up in the wake of the oil spill. With Big Oil more demonized than ever, it also predicted, "The bill could give Democrats a potent weapon to wield against Republicans in the fall."
The hearing of the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee begins at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
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