Washington: President Barack Obama lashed out at BP in his first address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, accusing the British oil giant of recklessness and vowing to make it pay for the damage from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
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 by what they see as the government’s slow response to their country’s worst environmental disaster.
The President, in a prime-time speech that sought to reassure the country he was in command of the crisis, nevertheless warned there would be more damage before the spill is contained. He said the nation could be tied up with the oil and its aftermath for months or years.
“We will make BP pay,” he promised.
Obama has been scrambling to show he is doing everything he can. But the government does not have the technology to stop a spill at such depth, 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.
In a statement released immediately after Obama’s speech, BP said it shared the President’s goal of cleaning up the oil and helping those affected by the spill, which started 20 April when an offshore oil rig leased by BP exploded, killing 11 workers.
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 you are useless,” and, “Lead now!” said two of several spray-painted sign along the president’s motorcade route in Florida earlier in the day.
Obama’s speech comes just ahead of his meeting in the White House on Wednesday with top BP executives.
“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.
In its statement, BP said it was looking forward to the meeting “for a constructive discussion about how best to achieve these mutual goals”.
Still, it is not certain BP can be forced to pay, since an independent third party and not the US government would control the proposed fund.
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% 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 new Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday found 52% of those surveyed don’t approve of Obama’s handling of the spill, a shift from last month when a big chunk of people withheld judgment. But the public is directing most of its ire at the oil company. A stunning 83% disapprove of BP’s performance in the aftermath of the 02 April rig explosion, while Obama’s overall job performance rating stayed virtually the same at 50 percent.
Obama said he had asked former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former 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 “as soon as possible”.
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 and 2.52 million gallons a day, an increase over previous estimates that put the maximum size of the spill at 2.2 million gallons per day.
Cleanup efforts were stalled for about five hours when a lightning bolt hit the ship siphoning oil from the leak. No one was injured.
As of Tuesday, the maximum amount of oil that has gushed out of the well since the 20 April explosion is 116 million gallons, 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.
In sometimes-testy exchanges about the risks of seeking oil under a mile of water, the executives testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that their companies would not have managed the Deepwater Horizon well in the same way, suggesting BP shortcuts led to the devastating outcome.
In a show of action, Obama 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.
The President also urged the country 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 a long shot.
“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.”
Wednesday’s meeting with BP was to be followed by a presidential statement, Obama’s fourth planned remarks on the spill in three days. Later in the week, BP leaders take the Washington hot seat again, appearing before more congressional hearings.