Washington: Vowing to "make BP pay," President Barack Obama accused the oil giant of "recklessness" in his first address to the nation from the Oval Office Tuesday night, eight weeks to the day after the catastrophic oil spill began destroying waterways, wildlife and a prized Gulf Coast way of life.
"We will fight this spill with everything we`ve got for as long it takes," declared Obama, whose own presidency has been stumbling because of the gushing oil. A new Associated Press-GfK poll even indicates as many Americans disapprove of his handling of the crisis — 52 percent — as felt that way about President George W. Bush`s handling of the Katrina aftermath.
Obama offered no immediate remedies for a frustrated nation. Rather he announced he had asked former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan — to be funded by BP PLC — in concert with local states, communities, fishermen, conservationists and residents "as soon as possible."
He did not detail what this effort — he called it a "battle plan" — should include or how much it might cost, a price sure to be in the billions of dollars. Whatever the bottom line, he declared to his prime-time television audience, "We will make BP pay."
That`s not certain, however. In declaring that BP won`t control the compensation fund for Gulf recovery, Obama failed to mention that the government won`t control it, either. The president meets BP executives in a White House showdown on Wednesday.
Fifty-seven days into the crisis, oil continues to gush from the broken wellhead, millions of gallons a day, and Obama has been powerless to stem the leak. The sad episode has raised doubts about his leadership and his administration`s response to what Obama has called the nation`s worst environmental disaster.
He spoke from the Oval Office while seated at the storied Resolute desk, a bank of family photos and an American flag filling the backdrop. A president sometimes criticized as lacking emotion, Obama talked in a calm tone, no sign of the anger he showed earlier in the week concerning the spill.
In one specific action, Obama announced former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich as his choice for the new head of the agency that regulates the oil industry. Obama said Bromwich`s job at the helm of the federal Minerals Management Service is to "the oil industry`s watchdog, not its partner." He also said that coming regulatory reforms would require stricter drilling safety measures and more robust spill response plans.
With national frustration rising, Obama sought to defend his increasingly criticized efforts and to stoke new confidence that he can see the job through until the oil is gone and Gulf Coast lives are back to normal.
He pledged not to rest until BP had been held accountable for all the damage its exploded well has caused and until the Gulf Coast region is restored. He did not repeat his earlier pledges to see the Gulf returned to "better shape than it was before."
Likening that process to a long epidemic instead of a single crushing disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, he warned that the nation could be tied up with the oil and its aftermath for months "and even years."
There was more bad news, too.
A government panel of scientists determined that the well is leaking even more oil than previously thought, as much as 2.52 million gallons a day — or enough to fill the Oval Office where Obama sat more than 22 times. The total spilled so far could be as much as 116 million gallons.
Lightning even struck. A bolt hit the ship siphoning oil from the leak — injuring no one but halting containment efforts for five hours.
Back on land, as long as the oil keeps flowing, no one seems happy with what anyone is doing to deal with it, from Obama on down.
Said one spray-painted sign along the president`s Florida motorcade route earlier in the day, as Obama capped a two-day inspection tour of the region: "Obama you are useless."
For restaurant owner Regina Shipp, her business suffering for lack of tourists in Orange Beach, Ala., the speech offered little solace.
"He said he`s going to make BP pay. Can he? Can he?" said Shipp, standing amid a sea of empty tables at Shipp`s Harbour Grill, which she owns with her husband, chef Matt Shipp.
And yet, Obama`s overall approval rating has not yet dipped, remaining around the 50 percent mark. Further, the public still is far more eager to blame the company than the president, with the poll showing disapproval of BP up to 83 percent.
On Capitol Hill, dominating the day before the president looked into the cameras from behind the storied Resolute desk, executives of the largest oil companies were grilled for hours by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lawmakers chastised chief executives representing ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell — as well as 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 their companies would not have managed the Deepwater Horizon well in the same way, suggesting BP shortcuts led to the devastating outcome.
Looking ahead to his White House showdown Wednesday morning with BP executives, Obama said he would "inform" them that the company must set aside in an independently run fund whatever resources are required to make whole all local residents and businesses hurt by the spill and to repair the immense ecological damage wrought by the oil.
That meeting was to be followed by a presidential statement — his 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.
BP has had only modest success so far in siphoning some oil from gushing into the water. But Obama said that within weeks "these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well." Later in the summer, he said, the company should finish drilling a relief well to stop the leak completely.
BP officials did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment on the president`s specific criticisms. In a brief statement, the company only said 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."
However, Obama said that the new Gulf restoration plan would go beyond just repairing the effects of the crude on a unique, teeming ecology that was 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.
Much of the president`s speech was devoted to a recitation of steps his administration has already taken — "from the very beginning," he said.
Obama also spent a large chunk of his remarks on his goal of passing sweeping energy and climate change legislation, a key domestic priority of his presidency that had become a long shot.
But while Obama urged action, he was subtle about what he was calling on lawmakers and the public to rally behind. For instance, though Obama supports placing a price on heat-trapping carbon emissions, he did not directly state that.
"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," he said. "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."