President adopts the right tone in talking about oil spill crisis; gives BP clear set of demands

There are two numbers that Americans should keep in mind as they watch the worst environmental crisis in U.S. history play out in the Gulf of Mexico: 60,000 and $1 billion.

The first is the estimated number of barrels of oil spewing from British Petroleum’s damaged Deepwater Horizon drilling rig about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana; the second is the amount of money that flows out of America each day to foreign countries to quench our thirst for oil.

On Tuesday, President Obama went before the America people in his first address to the nation from the Oval Office and delivered a pledge that will either make him a hero or a goat.

In the coming days and weeks, the president said, the additional equipment and technology the White House has directed BP to mobilize “should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well.”

And, when the company finishes drilling a relief well later this summer, the leak should be stopped completely.

The confidence with which he spoke during his 18-minute address is what the residents of the Gulf states, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and, indeed, all Americans have needed to hear. Daily television images and newspaper pictures of the oil gushing from the Gulf floor and the environmental damage caused by the millions of gallons have shocked the senses.

And while fair-minded people know the fault lies squarely with BP, there has been growing demand for the federal government to take over the operations.

Lack of expertise

But as the president acknowledged during a recent news conference, Washington does not have the expertise to replace the oil company in the well-capping effort.

However, the administration does have the power and legal authority to require BP to not only bring to bear all the technology available to stop the oil flow, but also to pay for the damage it has caused.

Obama scolded the giant oil company not only for failing to establish fail-safe procedures and to adhere to industry standards with regard to the operation of the deepwater rig, but also for the less-than-urgent way it has responded to the environmental crisis.

That should have been music to the ears of the people of the Gulf region whose lives and livelihoods have been turned upside down by the spill.

To his credit, the president did not seek to downplay the long-term effects of the millions of gallons of oil that have turned the waters of the Gulf into a slimy mess and are threatening the beaches and wildlife habitats.

“Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days,” Obama said. “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.”

But, the fight will be paid for by BP.

On Wednesday, the president met with the chairman of the company and his tough stance worked: BP announced it will set aside $20 billion to pay the victims of the massive oil spill.

The independent fund will be managed by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw payments to families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In his current role, Feinberg is known as Obama’s “pay czar,” setting salary limits for companies getting the most aid from a $700 billion government bailout fund.

Lack of promptness

One of the main complaints from governors, legislators and residents of the region is that BP has been less than prompt in handling and then paying the claims.

While Obama has been criticized over the past weeks for his perceived laid-back approach to dealing with this crisis, the speech Tuesday made it clear that he and members of his administration are directly involved in the recovery effort.

An important lesson to be learned from the spill is that better regulations, better safety standards and better enforcement are essential when it comes to offshore drilling.

But there’s another lesson that can be gleaned from the spill: The days of cheap and accessible oil are numbered.

The $1 billion a day being sent abroad for oil is a stark reminder of that reality.

President Obama cited that figure in arguing that it’s time for Congress to act on clean energy legislation. Indeed the political equation has changed in the last two months and public support for the so-called cap-and-trade bill now before the Senate — it has passed the House — will increase.

“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,” the president said.

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