Obama: BP agrees to $20B fund for spill victims
WASHINGTON BP is suspending its dividends to shareholders to help pay for the costs, said chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. Obama announced the agreement after a four-hour meeting with BP officials. He also said the company had agreed to set up a separate $100 million fund to compensate oil rig workers laid off as a result of his six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. "The structure we are establishing today is an important step toward making the people of the Gulf Coast whole again, but it will not turn things around overnight," Obama said. The claims system sets up a formal process to be run by a specialist with a proven record. Instead of vague promises by BP, there will be a White House-blessed structure with substantial money and the pledge that more will be provided if needed. The news was applauded in the Gulf -- a rare positive development in a terrible two-month period since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed a flood of oil that has yet to be stemmed. Company officials talked separately outside the White House. Svanberg announced the dividend suspension and expressed sorrow for victims of the spill. "This tragic accident ... should have never happened," he said, and he also used the occasion to "apologize to the American people." Obama said the independent fund will be directed by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw payments to families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There will be a three-member panel to adjudicate claims that are turned down. "This is about accountability. At the end of the day, that's what every American wants and expects," Obama said. BP would pay $5 billion a year over the next four years to set up the $20 billion fund. "The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them," Obama said. "This $20 billion amount will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored." He emphasized that the $20 billion was "not a cap" and that BP would pay more if necessary. Earlier Wednesday BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, CEO Tony Hayward, and other officials walked slowly as a group from the Southwest Gate of the White House, where they were dropped off, and climbed the steps leading to the West Wing. The meeting comes the morning after Obama vowed to an angry nation that "we will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused." BP is the majority owner of the deep water well that blew out on April 20, killing 11 rig workers and triggering the spill. It was Obama's first meeting with BP officials since the spill. While Hayward has served as the voice of the company, the White House has been emphasizing the role of the company's chairman, Svanberg, instead. Obama in his speech to the nation from the Oval Office backed creation of a fund administered by an independent trustee to pay damages and clean up costs associated with the spill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats have suggested the fund be established with $20 billion from BP. In his Oval Office address, Obama described the battle against the spill in combat terms, calling it o -- a "siege" on the shores of America. Joining the president at the meeting were Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and the secretaries of energy, interior, commerce, homeland security and labor. For the president, the tough diplomacy with a few officials behind closed doors is a bookend to his attempt to reach millions at once. Using a delivery in which even the harshest words were uttered in subdued tones, Obama did not offer much in the way of new ideas or details in his speech to the nation Tuesday night. Instead, he mainly recapped the government's efforts, insisted once again that BP will be held to account and tried to tap the resilience of a nation in promising that "something better awaits." Now, at the White House, Obama said he will tell the chairman of the British-based oil company that it must set aside "whatever resources are required" to compensate the Gulf Coast people whose lives have been upended because of what he called BP's recklessness. What's more, Obama said this new damages fund, used to pay claims to workers and business owners, won't be run by BP. He said an independent third party will be in charge to ensure people are paid in a fair and timely way. The cost of such a fund would be enormous. The White House insists is has the legal authority to make it happen. Still, administration officials also acknowledge a negotiation is at play here, and key issues remain unsolved. Among them: Who will oversee the escrow fund, who will make that decision, how large will the fund be and whether BP will pay the salaries of oil workers idled by a six-month moratorium on new deep-water oil drilling. The company said in a statement that it shares Obama's goal of "shutting off the well as quickly as possible, cleaning up the oil and mitigating the impact on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast. We look forward to meeting with President Obama tomorrow for a constructive discussion about how to best achieve these mutual goals." In another development, BP said it began burning oil siphoned from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico as part of its plans to more than triple the amount of crude it can stop from reaching the sea. The company said oil and gas siphoned from the well first reached a semi-submersible drilling rig on the ocean surface around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Reaction to Obama's speech was mixed. Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said recovery work in the Gulf doesn't reflect the urgency that Obama suggested in his speech. "I just know being on the ground that that's not yet the reality," he said on CBS's "The Early Show." Obama's forceful tone about BP's behavior shows how far matters have deteriorated. The White House once had described BP as an essential partner in plugging the crude oil spewing from the broken well beneath nearly a mile of water. Now Obama says BP has threatened to destroy a whole way of life. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday showed 52 percent now disapprove of Obama's handling of the oil spill, up significantly from last month. Most people -- 56 percent -- think the government's actions in response to the disaster really haven't had any impact on the situation.
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