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Jun 13, 2010 3:33 PM by Chris Welty

Obama Plans Speech, Victims Fund for Gulf

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama demanded that BP set up
a compensation fund for the oil-tainted Gulf Coast and prepared for
his first Oval Office address to the nation as he tried to get a
handle on the environmental disaster threatening to overwhelm his
administration.
White House officials announced the steps Sunday as Obama
prepared for his fourth visit to the tortured Gulf. They came at a
pivotal moment in the catastrophe, with the enormity of the oil
spill in sharper focus from more accurate measurements and no end
in sight until relief wells are completed in August.
That means the nation must settle in for a long, hot summer of
oil and gas spewing relentlessly from the ocean floor, driving
residents to anger and despair, ruining precious marshlands, and
poisoning pelicans, turtles and other wildlife.
For Obama, it is imperative that he try to help guide the
country through the anguishing weeks ahead. After returning Tuesday
from a trip to Alabama, Mississippi and Florida he will deliver a
prime-time address from the Oval Office. It will be the first time
he has used that most presidential of settings as a backdrop,
underscoring the urgency of the moment.
"We're at a kind of inflection point in this saga, because we
now know that, what essentially what we can do and what we can't
do, in terms of collecting oil, and what lies ahead in the next few
months," senior adviser David Axelrod said on NBC's "Meet the
Press. "And he wants to lay out the steps that we're going to take
from here to get through this, through this crisis."
Obama is expected to use the speech to reiterate the need for
Congress to pass comprehensive energy legislation stalled in the
Senate.
The next day, Wednesday, Obama will convene his first meeting
with BP PLC executives, expected to include the company's
much-criticized CEO, Tony Hayward, who will also be grilled on
Capitol Hill this week. At the meeting the president will tell
company officials he expects them to establish a major compensation
fund for people and companies damaged by the spill, to be
administered by an independent panel, and that he will use his
legal authority to ensure BP complies, White House officials said.
The White House said the size of the fund was to be determined,
but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., circulated a letter
to other senators Sunday to be sent to BP asking for a $20 billion
set-aside.
BP spokeswoman Sheila Williams in London said the company was
aware of the White House's plans for an escrow account, but she
declined to comment further.
Almost two months since BP's leased drilling rig Deepwater
Horizon exploded in the Gulf, triggering the worst oil spill in
U.S. history, the steps add up to Obama's most concerted efforts so
far to wrest control of the calamity. It remains to be seen whether
he'll be able to win back the confidence of a skeptical public
that's already seen potentially more than 100 million gallons of
crude expelled into the Gulf, far outstripping the Exxon Valdez
disaster. Estimates of the size of the spill have ratcheted up time
and again even as BP tries to collect some portion of the spewing
oil into containment ships at the surface.
With Gulf residents hurting and criticism raining in from
Republicans, Obama will try to regain control of a story line,
generated by residents and governors of the affected states among
others, that he's not in command.
It's a hallmark of Obama's presidency that he's arriving with
deliberation at the point where he tries to seize the moment, not
reacting from the gut like President George W. Bush grabbing a
bullhorn in the rubble of the Twin Towers after the Sept. 11
attacks. Bush's speech in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina came
sooner into that disaster than Obama's planned Oval Office speech,
but it yielded miserably few results, a negative verdict that Obama
still has a chance to avoid.
His Gulf trip Monday and Tuesday will take him to Mississippi,
Alabama and Florida, the three Gulf states he has yet to visit,
since his first three Gulf trips were all to Louisiana, the most
heavily impacted state. He planned public events, visits to beaches
and talks with local officials and residents. For the White House
the next several days amount to exercising every tool at its
disposal - an on-scene visit by the president, a speech from the
Oval Office, the use of the power of the presidency to extract
concessions from BP.
Alabama's governor, Bob Riley, complained Sunday that the
response to the spill still amounted to "trying to manage this
through a committee form." But Florida's governor, Charlie Crist,
offered a note of thanks.
"You know, whether you're in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or
in my Florida, it's important to have the leader of the free world
come down here and pay attention to what's happening," Crist said
on CBS' "Face the Nation." "So we're grateful that he is."
The White House can only hope that sentiment will resonate with
- and perhaps be echoed by - the public in the months ahead.

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