The White House said on Monday BP appears willing to set up the kind of victims compensation fund the presient is demanding, as Barack Obama set out on a three-day tour of the stricken Gulf of Mexico Coast.
The tour represents Obama's most concerted efforts so far to assert leadership in face of the calamity, with the White House exercising every tool at its disposal - an on-scene visit by the president, a speech from the Oval Office, the use of the power of the presidency to extract concessions from BP. The White House hopes it will be enough to win back the confidence of a skeptical public.
Spokesman Bill Burton, speaking to reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One to the Gulf, said the White House and BP were "working out the particulars," such as the amount of the fund and how it will be administered. The account would be run by an independent third-party entity, Burton said, and would run into "the billions of dollars," although he wouldn't give a specific amount.
"We're confident that this is a critical way in which we're going to be able to help individuals and businesses in the Gulf area become whole again," the spokesman said.
BP's board was meeting Monday in London to discuss deferring its second-quarter dividend and putting the money into escrow until the company's liabilities from the spill are known. BP spokeswoman Sheila Williams had said earlier that the company was aware of the White House's demand for a compensation fund, but declined to comment further.
The administration had said earlier that Obama was prepared to force BP, if necessary, to set up the fund. Burton said Monday that Obama aides are "confident we have the legal authority" to do that. But he didn't expand on how, saying it wasn't necessary "considering BP is going to do this."
Obama's two-day trip to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida launches a busy week for the government's attempt to get control of the nation's worst environmental disaster. The president plans to address the nation from the Oval Office Tuesday night after his return, and he is to meet with BP executives face-to-face for the first time on Wednesday.
The White House get-together is expected to include the company's much-criticized CEO, Tony Hayward. Later in the week, company officials will have to face Congress in hearings on the spill. The White House has been using the power of the presidency to extract concessions from BP as efforts continue to stop the leak. They add up to Obama's most concerted efforts so far to assert leadership in face of the calamity.
In the Tuesday night speech, Obama aims to help guide the country through what's been done to date, what his administration will do going forward and how people in the region will be made whole.
For instance, Burton said Obama will address both worker safety and food safety "to make sure the American people know we're doing everything we can and we're monitoring in each and every place possible."
The symbolism of using the Oval Office for an address for the first time in Obama's presidency was deliberate, and a decision made by the president himself, Burton said.
"What we're seeing in the Gulf is a catastrophe the likes of which our country has never seen," he said.
The administration said earlier on Monday that BP had responded to a letter sent over the weekend asking the company to speed up its ability to capture the spewing oil from its well 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the ocean's surface.
In its response, BP said it would target containing more than 2 million gallons (7.6 million liters) of oil a day by the end of June, up from about 630,000 gallons (2.4 million liters) of crude a day now. High-range estimates from researchers advising the government have said that as much as 2.1 million gallons (8 million liters) a day could be billowing from BP's runaway well. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said BP's commitment would be reviewed over the next couple days by outside industry experts to "make sure it's going to be responsive."
Asked how much oil is still being released daily despite the containment efforts, Allen said it remained unclear.
Regardless, the leak won't be killed for good until relief wells are completed in August.