Testimony before congress earlier this week by executives for the three companies at the center of the catastrophic Gulf Coast oil spill played out like a three-ring circus.

The trio acted like a trio of schoolchildren caught by the teacher and sent to the principal's office for discipline. When asked to account for their actions, the first points to the second, the second to the third and the third points back to the first.

"Let me be really clear," Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America, told the lawmakers. "Liability, blame, fault – put it over there." For McKay, "over there" meant the witness table which included BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives.

Round and round we go.

With the crisis still unfolding and the full scope of the disaster still yet to be known on the Louisiana coast, we wonder why the urgency to hold congressional hearings at this time. The ongoing battle to save the environment should be foremost among officials in Washington, not getting facetime to score political points. Apparently, U.S. congressmen feel that hearing executives from BP America, Transocean and Halliburton trade jabs and finger-point is more important than committing all resources to the immediate threat facing Louisiana's fragile islands and barrier marshes.

The April 20 blast that killed 11 workers has already poured millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf. One fact that did surface from the hearings was the lack of federal oversight and regulation when the well platforms are constructed.

Just days after the blast, President Barrack Obama promised that no new offshore oil drilling leases will be issued unless rigs have new safeguards. But that pledge means nothing at this moment because no new leases are scheduled for the coming months.

It's hard to figure out which group – the politically-motivated congress and administration or the oil industry executives, are worse when it comes to disaster management in this case.

One thing that we do know is that while Washington officials are grilling oil executives to get their sound bites on the evening newscast, the underwater gusher continues spewing oil at the rate of about 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons a day. This man-made catastrophe could eclipse the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history – the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.

The fact that BP executives had no contingency for a worst-case disaster on its Louisiana coast oil drilling platforms is unbelievable. In its 52-page exploration plan and environmental impact analysis, BP stated that it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish, mammals and fisheries.

Just days after the blast, BP spokesman David Nicholas took off his rose-colored glasses, admitting that the Gulf disaster was unprecedented ... "something that we have not experienced before ... a blowout at this depth."

No kidding.

Unfortunately, the company's short-sighted failure in emergency planning does nothing to help the hundreds of species of wildlife – the many birds, dolphins and the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs – now being threatened in Louisiana's rich fishing grounds along the Gulf Coast.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com