US officials on Tuesday threatened to take over the claims process for victims of the Gulf oil spill, as it pressured BP to stop dragging its heels on setting up a multi-billion dollar damages fund.
"The best way to prevail on BP is to take the claims process away from BP," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told CBS television, addressing bitter criticism from Gulf residents that their livelihoods have been washed away.
"The president will either legally compel them or come to an agreement with BP to get out of the claims process (and) give that to an independent entity so that people that have been damaged can get the money that they deserve."
US President Barack Obama is due to address the nation on the crisis in his first Oval Office speech late Tuesday, after a two-day tour of the stricken Gulf of Mexico coast, parts of which were already heavily impoverished.
US lawmakers have written to BP chief executive officer Tony Hayward demanding 20 billion dollars be set aside for the clean-up and economic recovery, saying it would "do more to improve BP's public image than the costly public relations campaign your company has launched."
Gibbs refused to be drawn on any figures, saying the amount should be seen as a down payment for the overall cost of restoring the southern states.
Huge swaths of the Gulf of Mexico have been closed to fishing for the past eight weeks since an explosion tore through the Deepwater Horizon rig, off the Louisiana coast, and sank it in April.
The disaster has come at the height of the key fishing season, and just as hotels and restaurants were due to open their doors for the lucrative wave of summer tourists.
The British energy giant, which is containing about half of the spill as it drills two relief wells to cap the leak permanently, has vowed to "honor all legitimate claims" for compensation.
It has already paid 19,000 claims totaling 53 million dollars, but most of the checks for about 5,000 dollars for fish boat owners and 2,500 dollars for deck hands, fall far short of the 10,000 to 20,000 dollars shrimpers haul in during a good month of trawling.
Obama has said he hoped to have an agreement setting up a BP escrow account when he meets Wednesday with BP chairman on Carl-Henric Svanberg for White House talks.
But Gibbs warned the president was moving towards taking the whole claims process out of BP hands.
"The president possesses the legal authority and will use it to make the claims process independent, to take it away from BP and to ensure that those who have been harmed economically have their claims processed quickly, efficiently, transparently and that they're made whole again for the disaster caused by BP."