The larger lesson to be learned from this spill, emphasized Obama, is that now is the time for America to transition to clean energy and away from fossil fuels.
"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," he said. "Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America's innovation and seize control of our own destiny."
President Barack Obama says BP will pay for the damage the spill has caused. (Photo courtesy The White House)
"This oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," the Obama said. "And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it's not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years."
The President spoke to the nation immediately after returning from his fourth trip to the Gulf Coast to assess the spill and the federal response to it. After each trip he has become increasingly sterner with BP.
He said, "I've talked to shrimpers and fishermen who don't know how they're going to support their families this year. I've seen empty docks and restaurants with fewer customers, even in areas where the beaches are not yet affected. I've talked to owners of shops and hotels who wonder when the tourists might start coming back. The sadness and the anger they feel is not just about the money they've lost. It's about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost. I refuse to let that happen."
"Tomorrow," Obama said, "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."
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," Obama said.
Earlier this week Democratic Senators sent a letter to BP demanding that the company set up a special $20 billion independently administered account to cover compensation for damages, but President Obama still has not named a figure that would satisfy him.
Surrounding the site of the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico are 24 skimming vessels, 20 support vessels and three drilling rigs. June 13, 2010. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
President Obama did pledge to "fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes" and to do "whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
To restore "the unique beauty and bounty" of the gulf region which has suffered repeated economic and environmental blows, Obama said a long term plan is needed.
He has asked Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, a former governor of Mississippi, to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. "The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents," said Obama.
A few months ago, President Obama approved offshore drilling in new areas in Alaska, off the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began, Obama imposed a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling while allowing shallow water drilling to proceed.
Both of these decisions have been criticized from all angles, with Gulf Coast governors seeking an early lifting of the moratorium and conservation groups seeking an indefinite extension of the moratorium and a withdrawal of offshore drilling permission for new areas.
In his speech, Obama left both decisions in place, at least until investigators have determined the cause of the explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 that claimed the lives of 11 men, injured 17 others, and sent oil gushing unchecked into the gulf.
"I want to know why," this disaster happened, the President said. "The American people deserve to know why. The families I met with last week who lost their loved ones in the explosion - these families deserve to know why."
Obama has appointed a seven-member bipartisan National Commission to understand the causes of the disaster and offer recommendations for needed safety and environmental standards.
Co-chairs of the Commission are William Reilly and Bob Graham.
Reilly, a Republican, was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush and has been president of World Wildlife Fund. A founding partner of Aqua International Partners, a private equity fund for water and renewable energy, he is chairman of the board of ClimateWorks Foundation, which aims to win the battle against climate change. Reilly is a board member of oil giant ConocoPhilips, of the chemical company DuPont and the Texas-based electric utility Energy Future Holdings, formerly TXU.
Graham, a Democrat, was a former U.S. Senator and former Florida governor who works with the newly established Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. He also is chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferation and terrorism.
Announced Monday, the Commission members are:
"He is a national leader in taking broken agencies, applying rigorous reforms and oversight, and seeing positive results," the President said.
"For a decade or more, the cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency was allowed to go unchecked. That allowed drilling permits to be issued in exchange not for safety plans, but assurances of safety from oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore," President Obama declared.
The reaction of some environmentalists to the President's speech was cautiously positive.
Friends of the Earth's president, Erich Pica, said, "President Obama said some of the right things tonight when he promised to hold BP accountable, to reform the agency that regulates offshore drilling, and to move our nation away from the oil dependence that led to this spill. However, the President failed to use this speech to call on Americans to meet their individual responsibility to help solve this problem. Each of us has a moral duty to reduce our consumption of oil."
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, "We are very pleased to hear President Obama reiterate his call for a fundamental change in the nation's energy policy. The President now needs to lay out the specifics. What exactly are the steps we know we can take now? What kind of sacrifices can be made? How can every American help?"
But others denounced the President's speech. One of those is Larry Everest, who is organizing the Gulf Emergency Summit Saturday, June 19 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans.
Everest said, "The claim that BP will soon capture 90 percent of the gushing oil is likely yet another in a 59-day string of government and BP deceptions about the magnitude of the blowout and the effectiveness of BP's 'fixes.' Just today the size of the gusher was increased to between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day - 60 times what BP and the government initially claimed. Some experts warn oil could be pouring into the Gulf for months more."
Everest and his supporters are demanding that the government stop all oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Obama promised to 'do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover,' but provided no serious plan for doing so," said Everest. "Instead he continued the pattern of refusing to mobilize all society's resources, creativity, and energy, while stifling or preventing scientists, those affected and others from going all-out to help in stopping the spill, its spread, and recovery efforts."
Everest said the President's speech, "underscores the urgency of a broad, determined, and powerful peoples' response to get the truth out, to protect the shores and oceans and to deal with the ecological impacts."
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