Obama: BP Will Pay for Its 'Recklessness'

In first Oval Office address, president outlines plan to restore Gulf region.

June 15, 2010, 6:17 AM

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2010 -- With the BP oil spill consuming his presidency, President Obama slammed the oil company for its "recklessness" and said the company will pay for the damage it has caused along the Gulf Coast.

The president's choice of words and imagery signaled a war-like mentality in response to the crisis in the Gulf and seemed like a rallying cry for support for "the battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens."

In the first nationally televised address of his presidency delivered from the Oval Office, Obama laid out what he called his administration's "battle plan" to clean up the oil, assist the struggling residents and business owners of the Gulf region and put in place procedures and safeguards to prevent a catastrophe like this in the future.

The president's remarks were an effort to convince the American people that the administration is on top of the growing economic and environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, 57 days after millions of gallons of oil first began spilling from a damaged BP well.

"We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused," he said. "And we will do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."

Obama slammed BP for its "recklessness" and said that when he meets with officials from the oil company Wednesday, he will inform them that they must set up a fund to compensate Gulf Coast residents and business owners who have been affected by the spill.

"This fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent, third party," the president said.

BP issued a neutral statement tonight after the president's remarks.

"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," it said. "We look forward to meeting with President Obama tomorrow for a constructive discussion about how best to achieve these mutual goals."

Obama said that in addition to the need for immediate compensation for people in the Gulf, it is necessary to develop a long-term plan to "restore the unique beauty and bounty" of the region.

"The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that has already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats," he said. "And the region still hasn't recovered from hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

Obama announced that he has asked Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, to serve as a so-called czar and to develop a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan -- funded by BP.

"The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists, and other Gulf residents," the president said. "And BP will pay for the impact this spill has had on the region."

Tonight the White House announced that Obama has tapped former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich as his choice to head the Minerals Management Service, the agency that regulates the oil industry.

"His charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry's watchdog -- not its partner," the president said of his choice to head the agency that has been criticized for being too close to the oil companies it was supposed to be regulating.

The president used the Oval Office address to show how the ongoing environmental catastrophe exemplifies the nation's need to pursue a clean-energy future. Roughly a quarter of the speech was devoted to a push for the need for the United States to shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energies and the president said he will call for Congress to aggressively accelerate that transition to a clean-energy future

"The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight," Obama said. "Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude. "

The president said the disaster serves a larger lesson: that oil is a finite resource, and we're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water, so a more comprehensive approach to energy independence is needed.

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered," Obama 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. "

To critics who argue that the costs of that change are too high, the president said they are short-sighted.

"I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy -- because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater," he said

Obama largely stayed out of specifics -- briefly mentioning that the House of Representatives has acted by passing a "strong and comprehensive" energy and climate bill. But he did not mention the battle currently being waged in the Senate over similar legislation.

Additionally he did not reiterate his call for putting a price on carbon emissions, even though a senior administration official briefing reporters in advance of the president's remarks said he "absolutely" still believes this is the way forward.

As he has done in the past the president called on Democrats and Republicans to offer their ideas and approaches to help wean the nation off its dependence on fossil fuels.

"But the one approach I will not accept is inaction," he said. "The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet."

With a pristine beach and clear water as his backdrop, Obama said earlier today that perceptions and fears about oil in the water -- even in some unaffected areas -- are harming local businesses.

"When you look out over this unbelievable beach, one of the things that you can see is that, so far at least, this beach has not been affected," the president said from the Fish Sandwich Snack Bar in Pensacola, Florida, following a morning briefing on the oil spill from Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. "But there are obviously fears about the oil that is offshore."

Earlier the president walked the beach with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist amid shouts of "save our beach" from locals gathered in the area.

Tonight the president vowed to make things right for the local business owners affected by the spill.

"I've talked to owners of shops and hotels who wonder when the tourists will start to come back. The sadness and anger they feel is not just about the money they've lost. It's about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost," he said. "I refuse to let that happen."

Obama's first address from the Oval Office demonstrates the gravity of the Gulf Coast crisis and the political perils the crisis poses for his presidency. More Americans disapprove of the federal response to the spill than disapproved of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Today Obama assured the people of the Gulf Coast again that the administration would make BP pay for the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

"Yes, this is an unprecedented environmental disaster," the president said at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Pensacola, one of the staging areas for response efforts. "But we're going to continue to meet it with an unprecedented federal response. ... This is an assault on our shores, and we're going to fight back with everything we've got.

"I am with you, my administration is with you for the long haul to make sure BP pays for the damage it has done," Obama said to loud applause.

Obama, on his fourth trip to the region, visited Pensacola today, where he surveyed oil containment and cleanup efforts with Allen. He traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama Monday.

The president dispelled the idea that the Gulf Coast waters were unsafe and expressed optimism that the economy would pick up again.

"This city and this region will recover and it will thrive again," he said.

Obama said earlier today that Allen had assigned deputy incident commanders to each of the individual states to help federal responders "make decisions at a local level in response to the suggestions of people who know the communities best."

In Washington, lawmakers grilled oil industry executives for what they described as inadequate plans to ensure the safety of oil drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico and respond to a catastrophic spill.

But Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America, the company responsible for the well spewing oil in the Gulf, resisted suggestions from lawmakers that such operations be curtailed.

He told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee that America's economic security and way of life "significantly depend upon domestic oil and gas production" and warned that reducing operations in the Gulf would simply mean more tankers shipping oil to the United States from abroad.

McKay's testimony came after the committee released dozens of confidential internal BP e-mails that lawmakers say show the company "increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure" by cutting corners to save time and money.

Just days before BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded April 20, one BP drilling engineer wrote of a "nightmare well," another called it a "crazy well."

BP officials will meet with Obama at the White House Wednesday, and the company's CEO, Tony Hayward, is expected to testify on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Obama said his trip to the Gulf this week was aimed at gathering facts and personal stories from those affected in the region to bring to the table at the discussions with BP officials.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on "Good Morning America" today that the administration believes BP's oil containment efforts will collect more than 90 percent of oil spewing from the underwater leak by the end of June, and that cleanup efforts will "restore the Gulf not to where it was before this accident happened but to ... where it was years ago."

But many local residents along the Gulf Coast and 69 percent of all Americans, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, remain unconvinced that the government has acted aggressively or quickly enough. And a majority believe that some beaches will never recover, and more say some species of fish and birds will never return to normal levels, according to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll.

"I'd like to see the government get up off their keisters and do more than fly back and forth to Washington and play basketball or whatever it is they do," said Jerome Atkins of Dauphin Island, Alabama.

Republicans, meanwhile, chastised Obama for using the presidential pulpit to gain political ground and drum up support for legislation regulating carbon emissions, which some Republicans said constituted a "national energy tax."

"Since the outset of this crisis, they've clearly been more focused on identifying a scapegoat than in taking charge," Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader from Kentucky, said on the Senate floor today. "Clearly, the administration's national contingency plan was not up to the task. Why not? Did it rely too much on the oil companies to perform the cleanup?"

In the meantime, the leak continues despite a partial containment cap BP has placed on the well.

BP says it is planning to increase containment capacity, from siphoning 15,000 to 28,000 barrels per day of oil to as much as 50,000 barrels a day by the end of the month.

"What we have are physics problems," Gibbs said. "The top cap can only take so much, but they're adding additional lines ... to bring more and more of that oil to the surface and out of the Gulf."

Twenty-three more miles of the Gulf Coast were closed for fishing Monday as tar balls washed ashore and threatened sea life.

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf, George Stephanopoulos, Devin Dwyer and Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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