UPDATE: At spill hearing, BP CEO says he's 'deeply sorry'

WASHINGTON — Chastened by heavy criticism from lawmakers, a grim-faced BP chief executive Tony Hayward said Thursday he was “deeply sorry” for his company’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I understand the seriousness of the situation, the frustrations and fears that continue to be voiced,” he told a House investigations subcommittee.

But before testifying, Hayward had to endure more than an hour of mostly unrelenting criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.

“We are not small people, but we wish to get our lives back,” Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the panel’s chairman, told Hayward, throwing back at the oil giant comments made the day before by BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg — about how BP sympathized with the “small people” of the Gulf — and Hayward’s earlier remark that he wanted his “life back.”

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told the BP executive that in his committee’s review of 30,000 items, there was “not a single e-mail or document that you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well.”

More than eight weeks after the spill began and a day after BP agreed to a $20 billion victims’ compensation fund, Hayward said under oath to lawmakers that he was “personally devastated” by the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that triggered the giant spill.

As Hayward began to testify, a woman protester disrupted the hearing and had to be forcibly removed from the room by Capitol police. The woman, identified as Diane Wilson, shouted to Hayward from the back of the room: “You need to be charged with a crime.” She was grabbed by Capitol police and taken from the room.

“The fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon never should have happened and I’m deeply sorry that it did,” Hayward told the panel. And, while “we need to know what went wrong” Hayward also said that it was still “too early to say what caused the incident. There is still extensive work to do.”

While most of the opening statements by members contained harsh criticisms of BP, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, accused the White House of conducting a “$20 billion shakedown” by requiring oil giant BP to establish a fund to compensate those hurt by the Gulf Coast oil spill.

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House” on Wednesday, said Barton, who has received at least $100,470 in political contributions from oil and gas interests since the beginning of 2009, the second-highest amount among all the committee members.

Rep. Ed Markey disagreed, saying it was “not a slush fund, not a shakedown. … It was the government of the United States working to protect the most vulnerable citizens that we have in our country right now, the residents of the Gulf.”

“It’s BP’s spill,” the Massachusetts Democrat said, “but it is America’s ocean, and it is America’s citizens who are being harmed. … No, this is not a shakedown of the company.”

And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded: “What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction.”

Meanwhile, a rig drilling a relief well meant to stanch the gushing flow of oil into the Gulf is ahead of schedule and could reach its target over the next three to four weeks, reported Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, President Barack Obama’s point man on the spill response. Allen said Thursday that a drill from a rig near the ruptured well is nearly 10,000 feet below the seafloor and should come within 10 feet of the existing well within the next few weeks.

He also said that the final push of drilling is the most difficult. The drilling was originally slated for completion in mid-August. Once the drill reaches its target, BP will pump heavy mud down the relief well in an attempt to stop the flow.

At the hearing on the Hill, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, played a heart-wrenching video from a committee session on the Gulf Coast in which two widows whose husbands were killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion suggested that BP had put profits before safety. “These are now widows with small children to take care of, and they are the symbols and the faces of this disaster,” Braley said.

Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, said that BP “appears to have taken their eye off the ball.” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, told Hayward “BP has not learned from previous mistakes.”

Hayward received $4.7 million in 2009 in total salary, performance bonus and other non-cash compensation, roughly 27 percent higher than the $3.7 million he received a year earlier, according to an AP review of filings available on BP’s Web site

Hayward sipped a beverage and jotted notes as one lawmaker after another scorched him.

A group of protesters milled in the hallway outside the hearing room, including Diane Wilson, 61, a fourth-generation fisher from Seadrift, Texas, near the Gulf Coast. Wilson, appearing with a black-stained hand, said she wanted to send a message: “Hayward should go to jail.”

She was joined by Ann Wright, 63, of Honolulu, Hawaii, who wore a BP hard hat, overalls and sunglasses adorned with dollar signs.

“BP doesn’t really care about this,” she said, pulling out an oil-stained rubber ducky.

Waxman opened the hearing with rare praise for the oil giant. “Yesterday, BP pledged to establish a $20 billion escrow account and to suspend its dividend payments for the rest of the year. I’m sure these were not easy decisions for you, but they were the right ones, and I commend you for them,” he told the embattled CEO.

But then the gloves came off. “When you became CEO of BP, you promised to focus like a laser on safe and reliable operations,” Waxman said. “We wanted to know what you had done to keep this promise.”

“We could find no evidence that you paid any attention to the tremendous risks BP was taking. We’ve reviewed 30,000 pages of documents from BP, including your e-mails. There is not a single e- mail or document that shows you paid even the slightest attention to the dangers at this well.”

Waxman asserted that Hayward and his top deputies “were apparently oblivious to what was happening” and had been ignoring danger signs on the well in the days before it exploded.

But Rep. Parker Griffith, R-Ala., offered counterpoint to the waves of criticism of BP. He suggested that cigarette smoking, not the BP oil spill, was the nation’s worst environmental catastrophe.

“This is not going to be the worst thing that’s ever happened to America,” Griffith said.

As of Thursday morning, the BP well has gushed between 66 million and 120 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, based on government daily spill rate figures.

Newly disclosed documents obtained by the AP show that after the Deepwater Horizon sank, BP made a worst-case estimate of 2.5 million gallons a day flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. That figure is far higher than the company had said publicly until this week, when the government released its own worst-case estimate of about that amount.

The undated estimate by BP, apparently made sometime last month, reflected the actual situation as it was understood by BP at the time, said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, obtained the documents as part of an investigation into the oil spill and its aftermath.

Grassley said it was not clear when exactly BP made the calculation. “Certainly Americans have a right to know that BP made these estimates, the date these estimates were determined and why they were not disclosed at that time,” he said Wednesday.

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Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein, Matt Apuzzo and Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Harry Weber in Houston contributed to this report.

Frederic J. Frommer and Matthew Daly/The Associated Press