Obama: 'Reckless' BP to pay
He sought to reassure the nation while offering few new specifics. A U.S. panel, meanwhile, says more oil is leaking than earlier thought.
WASHINGTON - Dedicating new urgency to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, President Obama accused BP of "recklessness" in the first Oval Office address of his presidency Tuesday night and swore to make the company pay for the damage it had caused to lives, businesses, and shorelines.
He announced that he had asked former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan - to be funded by BP P.L.C. - in concert with local states, communities, fishermen, conservationists, and residents "as soon as possible."
Obama did not detail what this 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."
For restaurant owner Regina Shipp, her business suffering from 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.
Shortly before Obama's address, the White House announced that Michael R. Bromwich, a Washington lawyer who served in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, would lead the effort to overhaul the Minerals Management Service, the agency that has come under criticism for being too close to the oil companies it regulates.
Eight weeks to the day after an offshore oil rig leased by BP exploded, killed 11 workers, and sent tens of millions of gallons of crude flooding into the Gulf of Mexico, Obama's high-stakes speech came during a week of constantly unfolding drama.
Lightning even struck. A bolt hit the ship siphoning oil from the leak, injuring no one but halting containment efforts for five hours.
And a government panel of scientists said the undersea well was leaking more oil than previously thought, as much as 2.52 million gallons a day. The total spilled so far could be as much as 116 million gallons.
BP has had only modest success so far in stemming the leak, 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.
Much of the president's speech was devoted to a recitation of steps his administration had already taken - "from the very beginning," he said - to clean the oil, help the distraught people of the gulf, and prevent another environmental crisis.
"We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes," Obama said.
Likening that process to a long epidemic rather than a single crushing disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, he said the nation could be tied up with the spill and its aftermath for months "and even years."
Obama said that he understood the difficulties stemming from a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling but that he had to ensure the safety of oil-rig workers.
He added that he wanted to hear a national panel's recommendations to improve worker safety and environmental protections before the moratorium is lifted.
BP officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the president's criticisms. In a statement, the company said only that it shared 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."
Seeking to insulate their companies from the crisis, the leaders of Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips insisted at a congressional hearing Tuesday that they would not have made the mistakes that led to the blast.
"We would not have drilled the well the way they did," said Rex W. Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil.
"It certainly appears that not all the standards that we would recommend or that we would employ were in place," said John S. Watson, chairman of Chevron.
The hearing was an opportunity for three dozen members of Congress to vent their frustration at leaders of the world's largest privately owned oil companies.
Until now, the other major oil companies had provided technical assistance to BP and refrained from criticism. Even as they watched their offshore rigs idle and their stock values fall, they had presented a united front.
But that unity crumbled Tuesday before the House committee, mirroring growing frustration at being linked to BP. Some executives have been angered at BP's efforts to paint the gulf accident as an industrywide problem.
Democrats generally were seeking confessions of error and expressions of regret. Republicans focused more on the economic impact of the spill and the moratorium on most offshore drilling.
But even some Republicans were moved to join the attack on Lamar McKay, president of BP America, who sat at the witness table with the other executives. Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida told McKay that he should resign. Another Republican, Rep. Joseph Cao of Louisiana, said, "In samurai days, we would just give you a knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri."
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee that convened the hearing, demanded that McKay apologize for what Markey termed the incompetence and deceit that led to consistently low estimates of the size of the spill and the resulting damage.
After weaving for a bit, McKay said: "We are sorry for everything the Gulf Coast is going through. We are sorry for that and for the spill."
He declined repeated requests that he promise to place billions of dollars of BP's profits in an escrow fund to pay damage claims, as members of Congress and Obama have demanded.
"I cannot commit today one way or another to a fund," he said. "We said we'll honor all legitimate claims, and the full company stands behind that."
Looking ahead to his meeting Wednesday morning with BP executives, Obama said he would "inform" them that the company must set aside whatever resources are required to make whole all local residents and businesses hurt by the spill and to repair the immense ecological damage.
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 hot seat again, appearing before more congressional hearings.
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.
Obama also urged the nation and Congress to get behind his goal of passing energy and climate-change legislation, a key domestic priority of his presidency that had become a long shot.