- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A stern President Obama on Tuesday blamed BP’s “recklessness” for the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, vowed to make the company pay for the damage, and said the worst environmental crisis in U.S. history must force the country to move to energy independence.

Making the first Oval Office address of his presidency, Mr. Obama tried to assure Americans that he is on top of the cleanup effort, though he acknowledged the spill has “tested the limits of human technology.” But he stopped short of setting a deadline or offering details of what he wants to see in energy legislation, leaving Congress to take the lead on yet another major part of his agenda.

He called for an escrow fund, paid for by BP, that will compensate those who live along the coast and whose livelihoods have been affected by the spill, and he promised to carry out a long-term restoration plan to repair an entire region that he said is still recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Mr. Obama said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, will head the reconstruction effort, consulting broadly with governments, communities and businesses in the affected regions.

“The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years,” Mr. Obama said. “But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got, for as long it takes.”

And despite the huge projected environmental and economic costs related to the spill, Mr. Obama added, “We will make BP pay.”

With the Oval Office speech, Mr. Obama tapped into a presidential tradition reserved for matters of grave importance, a move that signals the seriousness with which his administration is now treating the spill. The administration has steadily upped the ante in the weeks after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 workers and created the massive leak, after taking criticism over what many described as an initially tepid federal response.

Government scientists said Tuesday that they estimate far more oil could be leaking into the Gulf than originally thought. The new estimate is between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil per day, much higher than the previous guess of between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels.

The administration says 15,000 to 17,000 barrels of leaked oil are being contained daily.

Mr. Obama said within a few weeks he wants to see more than 90 percent of the oil being captured. A new well being dug to relieve the pressure on the leaking well is not expected to be completed until August.

The president outlined the joint BP-government response so far, including 30,000 people deployed across four states and more than 5 million feet of containment booms used. Mr. Obama also said he has authorized up to 17,000 National Guard troops to be deployed to the Gulf states if governors request them. He said the federal government will pick up the cost.

“For generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy,” Mr. Obama said.

The disaster threatens the reputation of his 17-month-old presidency, with Republicans saying he has fumbled the response.

“It’s puzzling it took President Obama so long to address a waiting nation regarding a tragedy that he has compared to September 11th,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “While he spent two months searching for someone to blame, residents of the Gulf Coast have been searching for answers and looking for help.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele accused Mr. Obama of seeking to use the disaster for political gain and to build support for his push for climate-change legislation.

“Exploiting the tragedy in the Gulf to try to ram through a devastating, job-killing national energy tax is more of the same Chicago-style politics that has the president’s approval ratings plummeting to an all-time low,” Mr. Steele said.

An Associated Press poll released Tuesday found 52 percent of the public disapproves of the way the president has handled the oil spill. That’s similar to the proportion who were displeased with the way President George W. Bush handled the aftermath to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In Louisiana, which has seen the brunt of both disasters, voters say Mr. Obama’s performance has been worse than Mr. Bush’s reaction to Katrina, according to a survey by a Democratic polling firm. According to Public Policy Polling, 50 percent of voters say Mr. Bush did a better job on Katrina than Mr. Obama has done on the spill, with only 35 percent saying the Democrat has done a better job.

Keenly aware of those types of numbers - an image problem exacerbated daily by jarring images of oily birds and fresh reports of displaced fishermen - the Obama administration has been dogged in its efforts to show it is in control of the situation. Mr. Obama on Monday made his fourth trip to the region, this time visiting the three Gulf states east of Louisiana and imploring Americans to support the local economy by visiting there.

The president said he has already told BP to send more resources to the Gulf to aid the containment efforts, and said the company must set up an escrow account, to be managed by an independent third party, that would pay the compensation claims of Gulf-area residents.

Mr. Obama has summoned BP CEO Tony Hayward and Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to the White House for a 20-minute meeting Wednesday morning, when he is expected to push the executives to accept the proposal for the escrow account to apply to damages and costs resulting from the spill. It will be the first time since the rig explosion that Mr. Obama has spoken directly with either man.

It was unclear how much of the president’s demands BP has agreed to. A senior administration official, briefing reporters before the speech, said he didn’t want to speak ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with BP executives.

But the official did say one unresolved issue among the administration, Congress and BP is who will be responsible for paying oil workers idled by the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling.

That moratorium has enraged a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, who argue that it will cost good-paying jobs at a time when the Gulf region desperately needs them.

“The president ought not kick the people of Louisiana when we’re down, and that’s what the president’s moratorium does,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, who called the ban on drilling a “bigger threat to Louisiana long-term than the oil itself.”

Oil company CEOs testified to Congress on Tuesday that letting their rigs sit idle costs as much as $1 million a day per rig, and they said they’ll soon have to move those rigs to waters off the shores of other countries to stop the losses. The House lawmakers said if the rigs move, they’re not likely to come back if and when the moratorium is lifted.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, another Louisiana Republican, said the moratorium also won’t end the U.S. demand for the 17 percent of the country’s oil supply now produced from the Gulf, but the freeze will increase U.S. reliance on crude shipped by less-safe tankers from the Middle East.

“We’re making a decision to begin spilling oil from tankers,” Mr. Cassidy said

In his 17-minute address, Mr. Obama said he understood the economic hardship the six-month moratorium had imposed on local industries, but said he was not prepared to lift the ban until he heard from a presidential commission investigating the BP spill and the safety of offshore drilling.

A new poll released Tuesday by the National Journal Group, the Pew Research Center and the Society for Human Resource Management found the public willing to pay higher energy prices if it means a cleaner environment.

Still, the survey said 66 percent of the public supports offshore drilling and 68 percent want Congress to include mining coal and drilling for oil and gas in the U.S. as part of any new energy bill.

Republicans had cautioned Mr. Obama not to use the oil spill as an excuse to lobby for action on climate change, but the president said the disaster must push the country to move to a clean-energy economy.

“This is not some distant vision for America. The transition away from fossil fuels will take some time, but over the last year and a half, we have already taken unprecedented action to jump-start the clean-energy industry,” he said.

While not laying out a specific set of plans, Mr. Obama said it was imperative to act.

“The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet,” he said.

The call for action on climate-change legislation is a tough sell, though.

The House last year passed a bill that set up caps for greenhouse-gas emissions, and two senators have proposed their own version of the bill. But in a test vote last week on another climate-change measure, the Senate signaled that there aren’t the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster this year.

Mr. Obama was also harshly critical of the Minerals Management Service, the government agency responsible for overseeing drilling. The president said MMS had gotten too cozy with the companies it is supposed to be regulating, and said that must end.

His first appointee to lead MMS, Elizabeth Birnbaum, abruptly resigned in late May. On Tuesday, the president said he’ll nominate Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general, to run the agency.

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