In BP speech, Obama exhorts 'national mission' on energy

President vows to compel BP to pay for its "recklessness" in oil rig disaster and urges Americans to "seize the moment" to break their addiction to fossil fuels.

4 min read

WASHINGTON--President Obama vowed on Tuesday to compel BP to pay the price for its "recklessness" in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and sought to harness public outrage over the disaster for a "national mission" to cut U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

"We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused," Obama said in a televised address aimed at restoring confidence in his handling of the crisis before it further tarnishes his presidency.

Obama's stern message for BP, delivered in a solemn tone, was a centerpiece of his high-stakes speech on the oil spill, which threatens to distract from his domestic agenda of reducing nearly double-digit U.S. unemployment and reforming Wall Street.

How forcefully Obama responds to America's worst ecological disaster will have implications not only for the British energy giant but for the future of U.S. offshore drilling and for any hopes he has for rejuvenating climate change legislation stalled in Congress.

While urging Americans to "seize the moment" to break their addiction to fossil fuels, Obama's appeal offered no detailed prescription for getting there and lacked a timetable for passing comprehensive energy legislation.

"Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

Obama has made clear he supports a comprehensive energy bill that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and a senior administration official said the president still believes that putting a price on carbon pollution is essential.

But Obama stopped short of talking specifically about the climate change component in his speech, perhaps mindful of the steep political obstacles during a stuttering economic recovery.

He said he was open to ideas from Democrats and Republicans alike for reducing America's addiction to oil, but insisted, "The one approach I will not accept is inaction."

Obama's choice of the Oval Office setting underscored the gravity of the situation. Presidents in the past have used it to respond to national tragedies, as Ronald Reagan did after the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and George W. Bush did after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Another crucial question is whether Obama can placate angry voters in a congressional election year when his Democratic party's grip on legislative power is at risk.

Opinion polls show most Americans believe Obama has been too detached in dealing with the crisis and has not been tough enough in dealing with BP.

Seeking to counter criticism that he has not shown enough leadership in the nearly two-month-old crisis, Obama took a hard line with BP but did not go as far as reiterating an earlier assertion that he was looking for "ass to kick."

"Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness," he said.

"And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent, third party."

Ahead of the televised speech, major oil company executives told a U.S. congressional hearing that BP had not adhered to industry standards in building its deep-sea well that blew out on April 20, unleashing a torrent of crude that has caused the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

But their efforts to distance themselves from BP did not stop Democratic lawmakers from criticizing as "virtually worthless" industry plans to handle deepwater oil disasters.

Investors were also looking for Obama to jump-start alternative energy initiatives such as solar, wind, and geothermal that are now stalled in Congress. Shares in U.S. solar companies rose ahead of the speech.

In his first nationally televised address from the Oval Office, Obama sought to show he was on top of the oil spill crisis that has tested his presidency and overshadowed his efforts to reduce U.S. unemployment and reform Wall Street.

Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans believe Obama has been too detached in his handling of the spill, and he has come under intense pressure to show more leadership.

Adding a fresh sense of urgency, a team of U.S. scientists on Tuesday upped their high-end estimate of the amount of crude oil flowing from the well by 50 percent, to a range of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels (1.47 million to 2.52 million gallons/5.57 million to 9.54 million liters) per day.