By Ben Geman and Sam Youngman - 06/16/10 12:56 AM EDT
President Barack Obama sought to seize political control of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill Tuesday by laying out plans to ensure BP makes coastal residents whole while offering a broader pledge to rebuild the region and curb U.S. oil reliance.
Obama, speaking over seven weeks after the spill began, used his first Oval Office address to lay out his “battle plan” for the Gulf, defend the federal response to the disaster and vow to compel BP to create a damages fund that will be run independently.
“But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes,” Obama said.
“We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”
The speech comes on the eve of a White House meeting with BP CEO Tony Hayward and Carl-Henric Svanberg, chairman of the embattled oil giant’s board, at which Obama is expected to press for an escrow fund to handle billions of dollars in damages claims.
Obama spoke for roughly 18 minutes just hours after returning from a two-day visit to three Gulf states threatened by the largest oil spill in U.S. history — a disaster that has also consumed Capitol Hill and prompted bipartisan criticism over the effectiveness of the White House response.
“Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness,” Obama said. “And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.”
Obama vowed that there will be a long-term restoration plan in response to the spill, which is harming sensitive marshlands and the region’s seafood, fishing and tourism industries.
As part of that vow, Obama announced he has asked the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor and “son of the Gulf,” to “develop a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan as soon as possible.”
“The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents,” he said. “And BP will pay for the impact this spill has had on the region.”
The president used the speech to call for action on a sweeping energy policy overhaul that will help end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels like the oil spewing into the Gulf.
He touted House passage last year on a major energy and climate change package, noting that it reflects his principles and “finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses.” He called for further action.
“For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered,” Obama said. “For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.
And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.”
Obama did not repeat his call from a June 2 speech for “finally putting a price on carbon pollution,” but administration officials say he remains committed to climate change provisions.
His push for energy reform comes as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cobbles together wide-ranging energy legislation for debate on the Senate floor as soon as next month.
But it remains unclear whether the Senate’s energy plans will include limits on carbon emissions from sources like power plants and factories. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are seeking political traction for a modified version of a cap-and-trade plan that they unveiled in May, but have yet to attract any GOP backing.
Obama signaled that he is open to a range of ideas, noting “the one approach I will not accept is inaction.”
The president acknowledged “there are costs associated with this transition,” costs that have led Republicans to accuse Obama of using a national tragedy to pursue a national energy tax.
“And some believe we can’t afford those costs right now,” Obama said. “I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy — because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security and our environment are far greater.”
Obama touted administration efforts to overhaul and toughen federal offshore oil-and-gas drilling rules. He cited Tuesday’s announcement that he has named former Justice Department official Michael R. Bromwich to oversee the efforts.
“His charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog — not its partner,” Obama said.
While drilling policy is under review — both inside the administration and by an independent commission the White House established — federal officials have imposed a moratorium on deepwater oil-and-gas drilling.
Slated to last six months, the moratorium has been heavily criticized by several Gulf Coast politicians from both parties, who contend it’s harming the economy in an already struggling region.
Obama made clear that he will not lift the moratorium until the commission has finished its report.
“I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue,” Obama said. “And while I urge the commission to complete its work as quickly as possible, I expect them to do that work thoroughly and impartially.”
The urgency of the spill containment effort grew Tuesday when a team of federal and independent scientists again increased the estimate of the amount of oil gushing from BP’s ruptured undersea well.
The Flow Rate Technical Group estimated the rate is between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels. But federal officials — and Obama himself — also said that the containment system in place will be able to capture increasing amounts of the gusher beyond the current 18,000-barrel capacity.
Obama noted he has forced BP to mobilize additional equipment.
“In the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well,” he said.