- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2010

THEODORE, Ala. | With oil still spewing from a broken well in the Gulf, President Obama made his fourth trip to the region Monday, imploring Americans to support the local economy by visiting here and vowing to help the area rebound from the disaster.

On the sweltering first day of a two-day trip to affected areas in the three states east of Louisiana, Mr. Obama met with local officials and business owners in Gulfport, Miss., and then toured a massive staging facility in Alabama, where bright orange cargo containers filled with booms to help curb the oil slick await deployment.

Miles away, black sludge is slowly creeping toward the pristine Mobile Bay wetlands.

“There’s still a lot of opportunity for visitors to come down here, a lot of beaches that are not yet affected or will not be affected,” Mr. Obama said after a briefing with local officials at the Coast Guard station in Gulfport. “If people want to know what can they do to help folks down here, one of the best ways to help is to come down here and enjoy the outstanding hospitality.”

After mounting what some described as a passive initial response to the disaster - triggered by an April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 people - Mr. Obama has sought to project an image of a commander in chief who’s in control of the situation, taking a tough, often combative line against oil giant BP and vowing to make right the plight of local fishermen whose livelihoods become increasingly dire as oil continues to seep across the Gulf.

The two-day trip marks Mr. Obama’s first overnight stay in the area. Upon his return to Washington on Tuesday, the president will make his first prime-time speech to the nation from the Oval Office - a signal of the gravity of the spill, which has captivated the world with pictures of oil-soaked birds and tales of the human cost.

In the address, Mr. Obama is expected to call on BP to set aside a chunk of cash in an escrow account to speed up the process of resolving economic-assistance claims filed by businesses that have been affected by the spill. He’s also likely to use the disaster as an opportunity to make the case for energy legislation that would seek to slow climate change by putting a price on carbon emissions. The House passed such a bill last summer, but the effort has languished in the Senate.

The White House has steadily cranked up the pressure on BP. Over the weekend, the administration gave the company 48 hours to come up with a better plan for capturing the oil that’s still gushing from the well - an effort that resulted in a pledge by BP to siphon off 50,000 barrels a day by the end of June, a target it had planned to meet two weeks later.

The firm says it is collecting about 15,000 barrels a day with a cap placed on top of the broken well, which then funnels the oil to a ship that captures it. But with federal scientists estimating the leak at 35,000 barrels a day, that means nearly 1 million gallons a day continues to escape into the sea.

Lawmakers also have dug in their heels. In a letter Monday to BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward, Senate Democrats urged the firm to contribute $20 billion to an escrow account, which they said should be administered by a third party.

Separately, several lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, have suggested that BP should suspend dividend payments to shareholders while Gulf-area businesses await their payouts.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama has summoned Mr. Hayward and BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to the White House for a meeting, where he is expected to push the executives to accept the proposal for the escrow account. It will be the first time since the rig explosion that Mr. Obama has spoken directly with either of the men.

In the wake of the spill, Mr. Obama canceled some drilling leases that were pending or about to be let, imposed a temporary moratorium on new deep-water drilling in the Gulf and demanded a review of safety and environmental procedures.

But Gulf state Republicans said the moratorium could put drilling companies and suppliers out of work and could cost 20,000 jobs, at a time when the region needs them badly. The lawmakers will hold a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol to ask the president to lift the moratorium.

Although the oil continues to spew from the Deepwater Horizon well, Mr. Obama’s overall approval ratings remain largely untouched by the disaster. But polls show the public still thinks the government could be doing more to contain the oil slick, which has affected nearly 70 miles of shoreline along the Gulf Coast. A USA Today/Gallup poll out Monday found that 71 percent of Americans want Mr. Obama to take an even tougher line against BP.

After enduring the hot and sticky midday sun for a tour of the Theodore staging facility, Mr. Obama echoed warnings that the Gulf region faces a long and unpleasant recovery, but sought to assure the nation that it will bounce back from the damage.

“It’s going to take time for things to return to normal. There’s going to be a harmful effect on many local businesses. And it’s going to be painful for a lot of folks,” Mr. Obama said. “But I promise you this, that things are going to return to normal. This region that’s known a lot of hardship will bounce back, just like it’s bounced back before.”

Mr. Obama said federal officials are monitoring seafood from the Gulf to ensure it’s safe to eat, noting that he munched on some of it for lunch Monday. He said the government also continues to monitor safety conditions for workers responding to the spill.

The impact of the oil on Gulf-area beaches varies. Florida’s tourism bureau said Monday that while oil sheen and scattered tar balls have been found within five miles of Pensacola Pass, no beaches are closed and the sightings are confined to the northwestern part of the state. Alabama tourism officials, meanwhile, said there has been a “significant oil impact” and urged visitors not to swim at several beaches along the Gulf Coast.

Mississippi officials said Monday that they have spotted oil sheen and tar balls several miles south of Petit Bois Island, just east of Alabama. In Louisiana, public beaches on Grand Isle have been closed, and officials say they are testing seafood daily.