- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2010

President Obama emerged from his first face-to-face meeting with BP executives Wednesday to say the oil giant has agreed to create a $20 billion escrow account to settle economic injury claims from the April 20 explosion that created the massive Gulf oil spill.

Mr. Obama said the fund would be run by Kenneth Feinberg — the administration’s Wall Street “pay czar” who also administered payments to the families of 9/11 victims — and does not represent a cap, nor does it mean those affected in the region cannot pursue claims in court.

“The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them,” he told reporters Wednesday after meeting with BP CEO Tony Hayward, Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and other top executives.

Mr. Obama said BP is also setting aside $100 million for workers displaced by the six-month blanket moratorium that the administration put in place following the spill.

Mr. Svanberg, meeting separately with reporters after the get-together, revealed that BP officials have suspended dividend payments to shareholders through the end of the year to stockpile cash in anticipation of possible damage claims.

Mr. Obama, under fire in the polls for his handling of the crisis, had strong criticism for the company, but acknowledged it’s in the nation’s interest for BP to remain financially stable.

“BP is a strong and viable company, and it is in all of our interests that it remain so,” Mr. Obama said. “This is about accountability.”

The announcement comes on the heels of Mr. Obama’s first Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday night, in which he blamed the oil giant’s “recklessness” for the leak caused by an explosion to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 people and has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the sea. In the speech, Mr. Obama vowed that BP will pay for the costs associated with the spill, including making whole those businesses whose livelihoods have been destroyed, and called for a long-term Gulf restoration plan.

He also argued the disaster shows the U.S. needs a comprehensive energy bill to wean itself off fossil fuels, but stopped short of offering details for what he wants to see in energy legislation.

In his remarks, the Swedish-born Mr. Svanberg said the company was determined to repair the damage it has done to the region and rejected criticism that a giant multinational energy company did not understand the harm and pain it had caused to what he called “the small people” in the region.

“I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the American people on behalf of all the employees in BP, many of whom are living on the Gulf coast,” Mr. Svanberg said.

He also sought to assure reporters that, though BP is a massive firm, “We care about the small people.”

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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