In a newly optimistic tone, President Barack Obama promised Monday that “things are going to return to normal” along the stricken Gulf Coast and that the region’s fouled waters will be in even better shape than before the catastrophic BP oil spill.
He made his comments in Theodore, Ala., after beginning his two-day visit to the Gulf states by meeting in Gulfport with state and local officials, including Gov. Haley Barbour, and residents of the area.
Also Monday, his White House said it had wrested apparent agreement from BP PLC to set up an independent, multibillion-dollar compensation fund for people and businesses suffering from the spill’s effects.
With Obama hoping to convince a frightened Gulf Coast and a skeptical nation that he is in command, he is marshaling the tools at a president’s disposal: a two-day visit via Air Force One, helicopter and boat in the region, a prime-time speech tonight from the symbolically important stage of the Oval Office and a face-to-face White House showdown Wednesday with the executives of the oil company that leased the rig that exploded April 20 and led to the leak of millions of gallons of coast-devastating crude.
From an enormous waterside staging facility in Theodore, one of 17 where cleanup crews ready themselves and equipment to attack the spill, Obama mixed optimism about the ultimate result with warnings that the recovery could take a while.
“I can’t promise folks here in Theodore or across the Gulf Coast that the oil will be cleaned up overnight. It will not be,” he said, after encouraging hard-hatted workers as they hosed off and repaired oil-blocking boom. “It’s going to be painful for a lot of folks.”
But, he declared, “I am confident that we’re going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before.”
Upon arriving in Gulfport, Obama was met by Barbour and his wife, Marsha. They then all headed to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Gulfport for an hourlong meeting with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other local government and business leaders.
Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel, a Republican, said he’s satisfied with the oil spill response by the Obama administration and BP PLC.
Schloegel said he participates in daily calls the White House has with local officials in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
“That is what I call responsive,” Schloegel said on his way into the Coast Guard center.
Attorney General Jim Hood said after the meeting with Obama that local officials told the president some local boat owners hired by BP need two-way radios or other equipment to communicate with one another and with planes or helicopters flying over the Gulf to spot oil.
The local boats are being used to deploy oil-absorbing boom, but Hood said some have told him they don’t know where to go because they can’t communicate with others.
“I know it was helpful for the president,” Hood said. “He listened and he summed it up quickly, what they had said.”
Obama said he was gathering information while on the Gulf Coast before meeting with BP officials on Wednesday. He said he plans to “make sure people in Mississippi and elsewhere are adequately compensated for their damages and losses.”
Obama also made a pitch for Gulf Coast tourism, again emphasizing that there are still plenty of places for people to visit that haven’t been affected by the spill.
“And we just want to make sure that people who have travel plans down to the Gulf area remain mindful of that, because 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,” Obama said.
In Washington, documents released by a congressional committee indicated that BP took measures to cut costs in the weeks before the well blowout as it dealt with problems. A company engineer described the doomed rig as a “nightmare well.”
The comment by BP engineer Brian Morel came in an e-mail April 14, six days before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 people and began the nation’s worst environmental disaster.
The Oval Office address, Obama’s first, is intended to detail specific and potentially expensive new steps for responding to the spill. That is expected to include an ambitious plan to restore the fragile Gulf Coast ecosystem, already battered before the leak.
The president also will argue for passage of comprehensive energy and climate change legislation. It’s a case the president has been making repeatedly, and doing so from the Oval Office will put a much higher profile on one of his domestic priorities that has fallen by the wayside due to the difficult politics of the issue.
On the victims’ compensation fund, White House spokesman Bill Burton said the administration and BP were “working out the particulars,” such as the amount to be placed in an escrow account and how it would be administered.
The account would be run by an independent third-party entity, as Obama has demanded, Burton said. And it would run into “the billions of dollars,” although he wouldn’t give a specific amount.
“We’re confident that this is a critical way in which we’re going to be able to help individuals and businesses in the Gulf area become whole again,” the spokesman said.
The administration had said Obama was ready to force BP, if necessary, to set up the fund, and Burton said Obama aides are “confident we have the legal authority” to do that.
BP’s board was meeting Monday in London to discuss deferring its second-quarter dividend and putting the money into escrow until the company’s liabilities from the spill are known.
Government estimates put the total amount of crude spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at between 40.7 million and 114.5 million gallons, far outstripping the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. A containment cap has been placed over the damaged well, siphoning off some of the oil spewing out from 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.
Asked how much oil is still being released daily despite the containment efforts, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said it remained unclear. “That’s the $100,000 question,” he said on Air Force One.
Obama promised tough words – and demands – for Wednesday’s meeting with BP officials, his first. The company’s much-criticized CEO, Tony Hayward, was expected to be there, ahead of what is likely to be an explosive appearance later in the week before Congress.
The president particularly cited continuing problems with payment of claims for damages.
Erica Werner and Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press