- - Sunday, June 13, 2010

President Obama will demand this week that BP begin setting aside cash in escrow accounts to handle damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and turn over the handling of claims to an independent panel, White House officials said Sunday.

The president, who is still scrambling to take political control of the crisis, heads to the Gulf for the fourth time Monday since the April 20 explosion that triggered the massive leak. He plans a nationally televised address on Tuesday before meeting with BP officials, including Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, Wednesday at the White House.

White House adviser David Axelrod and the administration’s top commander overseeing the oil spill, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, appeared on the Sunday news-show circuit to outline the new tack on dealing with the multinational oil firm at the center of the spill off the Louisiana coast.

“We’ve been very concerned about the claims process. This is not the core function of an oil-producing company,” Adm. Allen said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “One of the things we’ve been talking about is an independent third party to administer a fund to make sure this happens quicker.”

The administration has been under pressure from Gulf Coast governors and other officials to speed up the claims process.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said he expects BP to pay for the loss of tourism revenue in his state from empty hotel rooms, restaurants and beaches.

“I don’t think there can be a dividing line,” the Republican governor said. “I don’t think you can say one group [of people] can get it and another won’t. The whole economy is based on the tourism market, and when it goes away, someone has to compensate.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said: “It’s BP’s responsibility to pay for all of this. And the mechanism for doing it needs to be one that’s friendly to the claimant.”

State officials in Florida and Louisiana have asked that BP put a total of $7.5 billion into escrow accounts to compensate the states and their residents for damages now and in the future.

White House and BP officials will discuss the amount of money to be set aside during talks this week. Mr. Axelrod said the sum should be “substantial.”

In comments indicative of the increasingly confrontational language the administration is using in reference to BP, Mr. Axelrod said he was not “looking to make judgments about [the oil company’s] soul.”

“It’s not a matter of trust. We have to verify what they’re doing and we have to stay on them and we have from the beginning,” Mr. Axelrod said on ABC’s “Meet the Press.” “I don’t consider them a partner. They’re not social friends. We’ll stay on them and make sure they are fully accountable.”

A day before the tough talk from the White House, the Coast Guard made public a testy letter to BP demanding that the energy giant pick up its pace and present a better plan to contain the spill by the time Mr. Obama arrives at the beleaguered coast Monday for a two-day visit.

BP’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said Saturday that the company would respond to the letter by Sunday night. The company’s board also was to meet Monday to discuss deferring its second-quarter dividend and putting the money into escrow until BP’s liabilities from the spill are known.

Out in the Gulf of Mexico, BP deployed undersea sensors Sunday on robot submarines that will be sent inside the well, an action the company hopes will provide a better measure of the oil flow.

BP’s public image has taken a beating and its stock price has plunged since the explosion of a deep-sea rig that killed 11 people and triggered a spill that has coated parts of the Gulf Coast with stinking, dark globs of crude and created environmental and economic devastation.

The company said in a statement to the Associated Press that it’s considering the Florida request.

“We have received a variety of funding requests from different states and have been responding to them in due course based on the particular issues raised in each,” said BP, adding that it already has made grants totaling $245 million to four Gulf states and is committed to spending up to $360 million for construction of six barrier island berms in Louisiana.

Regarding the concerns raised about a bankruptcy filing, BP said only that as of Saturday it was “not in discussions with” and had “not engaged any bankruptcy experts.”

This article is based in part on staff and wire service reports.



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