President Barack Obama pushed alternative sources of energy while vowing to make BP pay for the devastation caused by its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, addressing the nation ahead of a key showdown on Wednesday with BP executives.
Eight weeks into the crisis, oil continues to gush from the broken wellhead off the coast of Louisiana, millions of gallons a day. Obama has been powerless to stem the leak, and many Americans are angry at what they see as the government's slow response to their country's worst environmental disaster.
The president warned there would be more damage before the spill is contained. He said the country could be tied up with the oil and its aftermath for months or years.
"We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused," Obama declared in his first Oval Office address, a venue often reserved for matters of war. That is now how Obama describes the massive oil spill, a "siege" on the shores of America. The president also urged Americans and Congress to get behind his goal of passing sweeping energy and climate change legislation, a key domestic priority of his presidency that had become stalled in the Senate.
"Countries like China are investing in clean-energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil," he said. "The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."
Obama has been scrambling to show he is doing everything he can to stop the massive environmental and financial damage from the oil leak. But the government doesn't have the technology to stop a spill at a depth of one-mile (1.6 kilometers), forcing Obama to rely on BP to fix it.
"We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes," Obama said.
The president's address capped a two-day inspection tour of the stricken Gulf of Mexico region, and was lent new urgency as scientists announced the spill could be worse than previously thought.
Obama's speech came on the eve of his meeting at the White House on Wednesday with BP executives, his first direct encounter with them since the April 20 explosion on an offshore oil well killed 11 workers. BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was invited and encouraged to bring other officials; BP chief executive Tony Hayward, the beleaguered face of the BP response, is expected to attend, too. "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.
BP declined to offer details about what proposals it would bring to the meeting or any reaction to Obama's biting words. The company said in a statement that it shares Obama's goal of "shutting off the well as quickly as possible, cleaning up the oil and mitigating the impact on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast. We look forward to meeting with President Obama tomorrow for a constructive discussion about how to best achieve these mutual goals."
Obama said the proposed damages fund, used to pay claims to workers and business owners, won't be run by BP. He said an independent third party will be in charge to ensure people are paid in a fair and timely way. Key issues remain unresolved such as who will oversee the escrow fund and how large it will be. Obama said his government also has directed BP to mobilize more equipment and technology and that stepped-up efforts in the coming weeks should result in the capture of 90 percent of the oil spewing out of the well. Completion of a relief well later in the summer is expected to "stop the leak completely," the president added. The president expects to be able to announce a deal quickly to an impatient nation. He planned a Rose Garden statement after the meeting.
The new Associated Press-GfK poll released on Tuesday found 52 per cent of those surveyed don't approve of Obama's handling of the spill, up significantly from last month. But the public is directing most of its ire at the oil company. A stunning 83 per cent disapprove of BP's performance in the aftermath of the rig explosion, while Obama's overall job performance rating has stayed virtually the same at 50 per cent.
Obama said he had asked former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, an ex-governor of Mississippi, to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan to be funded by BP in concert with local states, communities, fishermen, conservationists and residents. Obama did not detail what this plan should include, but noted that it would go beyond just repairing the effects of the crude on a unique, teeming ecology already battered by the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"We must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment," the president said. Earlier Tuesday, a government panel of scientists said the oil spill was leaking between 1.47 million gallons (5.56 million liters) and 2.52 million gallons (9.54 million liters) a day an increase over previous estimates that put the maximum size of the spill at 2.2 million gallons (8.33 million liters) per day. As of Tuesday, the maximum amount of oil that has gushed out of the well since the April 20 explosion is 116 million gallons (439 million liters), according to the estimates by scientists advising the federal government.
The updated figures were released as lawmakers in Congress chastised chief executives from the largest oil companies ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell and BPAmerica for being no better prepared for the worst than BP. Later in the week, BP leaders take the Washington hot seat again, appearing at more congressional hearings.
Obama also announced he had picked former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich to lead the agency that regulates the oil industry, replacing Elizabeth Birnbaum, who has stepped down as director of the Minerals Management Service following accusations of lax oversight of drilling and cozy ties with the industry.