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Obama: Gulf will get back to normal

He called the region's seafood safe, and the White House said BP appeared ready to set up a compensation fund.

Workers clean the shore in Orange Beach, Ala. In Washington, the House is set to probe the April 20 explosion and its aftermath.
Workers clean the shore in Orange Beach, Ala. In Washington, the House is set to probe the April 20 explosion and its aftermath.Read moreDAVE MARTIN / Associated Press

THEODORE, Ala. - In a newly optimistic tone, President Obama promised Monday that "things are going to return to normal" along the stricken Gulf Coast and that the region's fouled waters would be in even better shape than before the catastrophic BP oil spill.

He declared gulf seafood safe to eat and said his administration was redoubling inspections and monitoring to make sure it stayed that way.

And the White House said it had wrested apparent agreement from BP P.L.C. to set up an independent, multibillion-dollar compensation fund for people and businesses suffering from the spill's effects. "I am confident that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before," Obama declared.

Obama plans to make a speech to the nation Tuesday night in which he will announce new steps to restore the Gulf Coast ecosystem, according to a senior administration official.

In Washington, documents released by a congressional committee indicated that BP took measures to cut costs in the weeks before the well blowout as it dealt with problems.

A company engineer described the doomed rig as a "nightmare well." The comment by BP engineer Brian Morel came in an e-mail April 14, six days before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 people.

The e-mail is among documents released by a House energy panel, which will hold hearings later this week.

The breached well has dumped as much as 114 million gallons of oil into the gulf under a worst-case scenario. BP says it has collected 5.6 million gallons with its latest containment cap on top of the well.

But BP said Monday it believed it would see considerable improvements in the next two weeks. The company said it could trap a maximum of roughly 2.2 million gallons of oil each day by the end of June as it deploys additional containment efforts, including a system that could start burning off vast quantities as early as Tuesday. That would more than triple the amount of oil it is capturing.

Still, BP warned its efforts could face problems if hoses or pipes clogged and engineers struggled to run the complicated collection system.

The House panel is eager to investigate both the rig explosion and its aftermath. In a letter Monday to BP chief executive Tony Hayward, Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) highlighted at least five questionable decisions BP made in the days leading up to the explosion.

"The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety," Waxman and Stupak wrote. Waxman chairs the energy panel, and Stupak heads a subcommittee on investigations.

The hearing will be Hayward's first appearance before a congressional committee since the explosion and sinking of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig.

The Waxman-Stupak letter focuses on details such as how to secure the final section of the deepwater well. The company apparently chose a riskier option among two possibilities, running a single string of steel casing from the seafloor to the bottom of the well instead of hanging a steel liner with a "tieback" on top.

Despite warnings from its own engineers, "BP chose the more risky casing option, apparently because the liner option would have cost $7 million to $10 million more and taken longer," Waxman and Stupak wrote.

In a brief e-mail exchange, engineer Morel and a colleague, Richard Miller, talked about the last-minute changes. "We could be running it in 2-3 days," Morel wrote April 14, "so need a relative quick response. Sorry for the late notice, this has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place."

Waxman and Stupak also said BP apparently rejected advice of a subcontractor, Halliburton Inc., in preparing for a cementing job to close up the well. BP rejected Halliburton's recommendation to use 21 "centralizers" to make sure the casing ran down the center of the well bore, they said. Instead, BP used six centralizers.

In an e-mail April 16, a BP official involved in the decision explained: "It will take 10 hours to install them. I do not like this." Later that day, another official saw the risks of proceeding with insufficient centralizers but commented: "Who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine."

The lawmakers said BP also decided against a nine- to 12-hour "cement bond log" that would have tested the cement's integrity.

BP spokesman Mark Proegler responded that the company's main focus now was on the response and stopping the flow of oil. "It would be inappropriate for us to comment while an investigation is ongoing," he said.

With Obama hoping to convince a frightened Gulf Coast and a skeptical nation that he is in command, he is marshaling the tools at a president's disposal: the two-day visit via Air Force One, helicopter, and boat in the region and a White House meeting Wednesday with the top executives of the oil company that leased the rig that exploded April 20 and led to the leak of millions of gallons of crude.

In Alabama on Monday, he mixed optimism about the ultimate result with warnings that the recovery would take time. "I can't promise folks here in Theodore or across the Gulf Coast that the oil will be cleaned up overnight. It will not be," he said, after encouraging hard-hatted workers as they hosed off and repaired oil-blocking boom. "It's going to be painful for a lot of folks."

One focus of Obama's trip - which included Mississippi and Florida - is the region's seafood, which faces growing doubts around the country but which Obama pronounced safe. He said that he had had some for lunch and found it "delicious."

To further allay fears, the president announced the "comprehensive, coordinated, and multiagency initiative" to protect the seafood industry, which is the pride and economic engine of the region. The effort is to include increased facility inspections and monitoring of fish caught just outside the contaminated zone.

The administration released few details. A statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Food and Drug Administration detailed current efforts to close waters and inspect seafood but did not describe new initiatives.

Dangerous poisons have not been found by any of the federal agencies taking fish and seafood samples. But fisheries officials are slow to publish their findings, and the lack of information and transparency is raising concern with the wider public.

Already, the council said, restaurants are putting up signs informing patrons they are not serving gulf seafood. The council expressed concern that this leaves the door open for competitors, including international ones, to enter the market.