WASHINGTON – Calling the widening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday in a prime-time address that the oil would be cleaned up and the Gulf’s ecology restored, and that oil company BP would fully compensate the spill’s victims.
“We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes,” Obama said. “We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”
The president also urged the nation to “tackle our addiction to fossil fuels,” prevailing upon Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that would embrace alternative sources of energy.
He said he would not tolerate inaction.
“The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet,” Obama said. “You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom.”
The speech – the first of Obama’s presidency delivered from the Oval Office – came as the government increased its estimates of oil flowing from a pipe a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico, saying that as much as 60,000 barrels a day could be leaking into the ocean, and as oil company BP continued its efforts to stem the spread of the spill.
The president vowed that the administration and BP would clean up “90 percent” of the oil in the Gulf before the end of the summer. But he also spoke of damage to the region that would linger for years.
And he also outlined a long-term plan to restore the “unique beauty and bounty” of the Gulf Coast wetlands and habitats, battered by decades of erosion, hurricanes and saline infiltration. He said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus would develop the plan, working with local officials, fishermen and conservationists.
In part, the president’s address was a bid to reverse sinking public approval of his administration’s efforts to respond to the disaster. Obama offered an unswerving defense of the White House’s actions in the days and weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20. “Because of our efforts, millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water,” he said.
A poll released Tuesday by the Associated Press found that 52 percent of those surveyed did not approve of Obama’s handling of the spill. That’s up sharply from a month ago, but far more were critical of BP: 83 percent disapproved of the company’s performance in the wake of the rig explosion that has sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf.
But even as the president Tuesday spoke of BP’s “recklessness,” he avoided a lengthy and pointed critique of the company’s actions before and since the accident. Members of Congress – many of whom are worried about voter skepticism about the government’s effectiveness – have been less reticent, alleging BP ignored safety concerns in favor of cost-cutting measures.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, 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.
“We would not have drilled the well they did,” Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson said.
Obama pledged to make Gulf Coast residents and businesses whole, and said that a compensation fund would be set up that would be funded by BP and administrated by an independent third party. All legitimate claims, he said, would be paid in a “fair and timely manner.”
The president will meet with BP executives today at the White House to discuss the fund, which could run into the billions.
Obama also called on Congress to pass a comprehensive energy bill without going so far as to endorse limits on carbon emissions. Disagreement over such limits has stalled such a bill in the Senate.
“For decades, we have known that the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered,” he said. “And for decades we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.”
The president earlier Tuesday named a former Justice Department inspector general, Michael Bromwich, to revamp the Minerals Management Service, the agency that oversees oil drilling, and which, the president said, “became emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility.” Bromwich, Obama said in the Oval Office address, would become a “watchdog” of the oil industry.
Hours before the president’s address, the Interior Department Tuesday dramatically revised its flow estimates from a previous high of 40,000 barrels a day to as much as 60,000 barrels a day. The increased flow came after the pipe leaking into the Gulf was severed earlier this month as part of a plan to stanch the spill.
The agency also said that BP was launching a second containment effort that could capture up to 28,000 barrels of the flow per day – up from the 18,000 barrels the company is trapping now.
Before returning to Washington for the speech, Obama wrapped up his fourth visit to the Gulf since the explosion, touring Alabama, Mississippi and Florida over two days, meeting with local officials and speaking to small-business owners.=350”>