BP Agrees to Put $20 Billion in Escrow Account for People Affected by Oil Spill, White House Says

Obama Promises to Make BP Pay, But Residents Skeptical of Cleanup EffortsOfficial White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with BP executives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, June 16, 2010, to discuss the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Pictured, from left, are BP CEO Tony Hayward, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP General Counsel Rupert Bondy, BP Managing Director Robert Dudley, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

BP today pledged to put $20 billion in an escrow account to compensate people affected by the Gulf coast oil spill, a White House official told ABC News.

The fund will be run by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who also oversees salary limits for companies getting federal bailout money.

The announcement came after President Obama met with BP executives today to push them to take responsibility for the financial damage caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, attempting to make good on his Tuesday promise to the country that his administration will fight the "epidemic" in the Gulf Coast with "everything we've got for as long it takes" and make BP "pay for the damage the company has caused."

The company was represented in the meeting by Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and Chief Executive Tony Hayward. Obama was joined by Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other members of his Cabinet.

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On the agenda for today's meeting was who would oversee the escrow account -- which the president said Tuesday would be managed by a third party -- how much money would be allocated by BP, and whether the company would pay salaries for people affected by the six-month moratorium on oil drilling.

This is the first time the president has met with any BP executives since the spill began on April 20, after an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig.

BP did not say what its executives will bring to the table today, except a statement that "we share the president'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 best to achieve these mutual goals."

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Obama's address to the nation Tuesday night, in which he promised a long-term recovery plan for the Gulf coast and to push BP to pay for the damages, was met with a mix of skepticism and optimism in the nation's hardest hit areas, along with a flurry of criticism from Republicans.

After weeks of confusion and criticism, Obama's speech Tuesday night -- his first nationally televised address from the Oval Office -- was an attempt to be seen as a commanding commander-in-chief, in a different kind of war.

The president vowed that the war "assaulting our shores and our citizens" would be fought on several fronts -- cleaning up the oil and containing the environmental damage through burning, skimming and barriers, then stopping the gusher under the sea; pushing BP to take responsibility for the economic losses; and taking steps to ensure that such a disaster doesn't happen again.

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The president also pushed for a new emphasis on renewable clean energy, a focus Republicans rejected.

"Fifty days ago, I think it's a speech that would've worked. Last night, it seems as if it just faded into the night," Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said on "Good Morning America" today. "He didn't jump on this crisis as soon as it began and he's had a hard time recovering every since. ... It wasn't his fault, he didn't cause it, but as president, you want the president to quickly move to rally. That's been lacking."

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who is spearheading energy legislation efforts for his party, chided the president for pushing an energy bill.

"The president should spend more time focusing on cleaning up and containing the oil spill and less time trying to pass a national energy tax that will drive jobs overseas looking for cheap energy," Alexander said. "After that, Congress can enact legislation to help electrify half our cars and trucks, which is the single best way to reduce our dependence on oil."

But the president's supporters say his speech was effective in that it sought to reassure the American people that the government has a long term plan for restoring the Gulf Coast.

Former vice president and environmentalist Al Gore also applauded Obama's call to action on energy legislation.

"The president is right to focus on stopping the spill and working to limit, to the degree possible, its impact on the Gulf ecosystem," Gore, founder and chairman of environmental group The Alliance for Climate Protection, said in a statement. "But ultimately the only way to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again is to fundamentally change how we power our economy."

He reassured people "he had a battle plan," Donna Brazile, Democratic strategist and ABC News consultant, said on "GMA" today.

"I thought it was a very important speech because we're at a critical moment," Brazile said. "People are now worried about the oil coming ashore, they're worried about their livelihood, they're worried about the long-term economic impact, and I think the president today will also add a little bit more ingredients to what I believe he laid out last night, by saying how much money will be put aside" by BP for Gulf coast residents.

The government and independent scientists estimate that between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil a day are still spewing from the well, a number far worse than previously estimated. BP's attempts to capture all the oil has so far been unsuccessful despite the use of new equipment and technology. BP says it will be able to capture up to 25,000 barrels a day by later this week, up from 15,000 barrels per day that's currently being capped.

On Tuesday, Obama pushed lawmakers to speed up the passage of an energy bill -- although he did not specify what he would want to see in such legislation.

"One of the lessons we've learned from this spill is that we need better regulations better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling," the president 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."

"As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of good, middle-class jobs -- but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment," he added. Obama also announced Tuesday that he has nominated Navy Secretary and former Mississippi governor Ray Mabus to head restoration plans.

Gulf Coast Residents React to Obama's Speech

On the Gulf coast, residents keenly watched the president's address. Some said watching Obama reassure them from the White House gave them hope and a sense that visiting the region first-hand made a difference for the president.

"I think we're seeing a change in how he's handling the situation and I hope for the better," said one Alabama resident.

Others said the president needs to do more on the ground.

"What I would have liked to have heard from him? That he actually had a plan," said Pensacola, Fla., resident Shelley Aspery.

"If we're at war as he says we are, then why aren't we bringing everybody into the picture that offered their help?" asked Charlie Brown.

Even before the president spoke, frustration had already given way to anger.

"I think it's lacking," one New Orleans resident said of the president's response. "I don't think he's responded to what we're going to do about the cleanup issues."

Before the president addressed the nation Tuesday night, most Americans said they were unhappy with the federal government's response to the oil spill. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week, 69 percent rated the federal response negatively and 64 percent said the government should pursue criminal charges against BP. An AP/GfK poll released Tuesday found similar results, with 52 percent saying they don't approve of Obama's handling of the spill.

Yet some Gulf coast residents say the responsibility doesn't lie solely in the hands of the president.

"I don't really think that's totally our president's job," said Alan Priest. "I think it's our responsibility as citizens to do that if we care about this place."

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.