WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday night used his first Oval Office address to try to change Americans' perceptions of his handling of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that's gushed out of control for nearly two months and to make the case that he and his team are finally in the driver's seat.
"We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes," Obama said in the 17-minute address he delivered hours after returning from his fourth Gulf Coast visit and on the eve of his first meeting with top BP officials.
"We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused," he said. He also asserted that unlike an earthquake or a hurricane that ends quickly, this out of control oil well is "more like an epidemic" and "stopping it has tested the limits of human technology."
The president also said the Gulf disaster underscores that America must begin moving now to a clean-energy economy, staring by passing clean-energy legislation.
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Obama offered few new specifics, however, reciting steps that have been taken toward plugging the hole and capturing the spilled oil. He vowed to restore the Gulf Coast and said he'd tapped Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, to oversee the development of a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan funded by BP.
However, veterans of the smaller 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska have warned that the battle was lost the moment oil got away.
"The damage will be done," Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine science professor, told McClatchy. "There's really no easy way to rehabilitate oiled wildlife, no easy way to restore an oil-injured ecosystem, and there's certainly no easy way to make lives whole that were turned upside-down by these things."
Obama's speech capped a day with many developments related to the Gulf disaster, including:
_ The federal government raised its estimated spill rate to as much as 60,000 barrels a day, its highest yet, and far worse than the 5,000 barrel daily rate that BP and the Coast Guard stood by for weeks.
_ Obama tapped Michael Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor and Justice Department inspector general — and fellow former Harvard Law alum — to lead the reorganization of the troubled Minerals Management Service, the agency that regulates the industry.
_ Executives of four other top oil companies, Shell, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee that they wouldn't have allowed the same drilling risks as BP did.
With his high-profile prime-time Oval Office speech, Obama hoped to close a chapter when his administration has appeared reactive and impotent. He laid out the most comprehensive accounting to date of cleanup efforts, his plans to shake up federal regulation of the oil industry, and emphasized that he'll direct BP to set up a compensation fund administered by a third party to cover peoples' losses and a multi-year plan to restore the region,
Before his speech, a plurality of Americans disapproved of Obama's handling of the spill, according to an Ipsos-McClatchy poll of 1,071 adults conducted June 10-13. The survey found that 41 percent disapproved, 33 percent approved and 26 percent were unsure or neutral. The poll had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Obama said that within a matter of days or weeks, BP should be able to capture 90 percent of the oil belching from the well, and said the leak should be stopped completely by later this summer once relief wells now being drilled are completed.
The president said that over 5.5 million feet of boom have been laid to protect the shoreline. He said 30,000 people are working across four states on the cleanup. He said he'd authorized deployment of 17,000 National Guard troops along the coast and said he'd approved construction of new barrier islands in Louisiana to protect the shore.
Obama reiterated that the tragedy that began with an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 people, is the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The president also renewed his call for Congress to pass an energy bill that shifts investment from carbon to clean energy: "The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."
However, lacking sufficient votes in Congress to pass a climate change bill that imposes a carbon fee structure, he said, "I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party" including higher building efficiency standards and more wind- and solar-powered electricity.
Echoing his party's opposition to the Democratic energy-and-climate-control legislation before Congress, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said that Obama shouldn't use the crisis to "mislead the American people into thinking that the cure for the oil spill is a new national energy tax that drives jobs overseas looking for cheap energy."
(Erika Bolstad and Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News contributed to this article.)
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