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President Obama Speaks On Oil Spill

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NPR's Scott Horsley and Elizabeth Shogren talk to Michele Norris about the oil spill in the Gulf and President Obama's address to the nation on Tuesday night.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

We will fight the spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes, those words tonight from President Obama in his first address from the Oval Office. Mr. Obama struck a hopeful tone in talking about his plan to help the Gulf Coast recover from the ongoing oil spill. He also admitted that the damage done is severe and, well, get worse.

P: 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 it damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.

NORRIS: At times, the president sounded as if he were commanding an army as he laid out what he called his battle plan to handle the spill. He said, going forward, the government will focus on cleanup, compensation to those affected by the oil and ensuring that a disaster like this does not happen again.

Mr. Obama also sought to reassure the people of the Gulf Coast that he understands their pain.

P: I 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, 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.

NORRIS: President Obama, there, talking about his plan to create an escrow account. And for more on that and more highlights of the speech, I'm joined now by NPR's Scott Horsley and NPR's Elizabeth Shogren. Welcome to both of you.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: Now, Scott, I'm going to begin with you. The president made another effort tonight to try to turn the tide on this oil spill as a crisis in the Gulf and as a challenge to his own ability to handle big problems. He tried to show where - demonstrate through words that he's on top of this. How would you sum up his points on the substance and also on the tone?

HORSLEY: Well, part of what he's doing, of course, is managing expectations, as we said, going into this by talking about this oil spill not as a one-time event but as an ongoing epidemic. He's bracing the country for weeks and months to come of more pictures of oil-soaked birds and more fishermen who are out of work and telling us that he understands that's what here in for, bracing us for that.

Much as he did with the deep downturn of the economy when he first came into office, saying, look, we've got some tough days ahead, but we will get through this.

He also talked about going into this meeting tomorrow with the BP executives and informing BP that they will be setting up this fund. That's a position of authority for the president. At the same time, his aides have described this as a negotiation that he has with BP tomorrow, so it's not necessarily a one-way street.

NORRIS: I'm going to ask you a little bit more about that escrow account, this third party that would essentially handle these compensation claims. What's the framework for that? What is - what can the White House do? And what can't the White House do?

HORSLEY: Well, we didn't get a lot of detail in the speech. And in talking with senior administration officials earlier, they didn't offer a whole lot of details. It's not yet clear who's going to name the third party, whether it will be a cooperative deal worked out with BP. Again, that's subject to negotiations that are going on tomorrow.

NORRIS: And, Scott, the president made this the moment for his first Oval Office speech, first time he's delivered a public address from there, which suggests that in some way that they're really understand the stakes, not just for the people of the Gulf, for the economy, but also for his presidency.

HORSLEY: Absolutely, I mean, any president is challenged to deal with the crises that wound up on his plate, but for a president here who is really trying to assert a more activist role for the government, whether it's in priming the pump of the economy or in overseeing health care. The level of trust that people have in their government to manage those things competently is crucial.

NORRIS: Elizabeth Shogren is here in the studio also. She's been covering the environmental issues for us. And one thing that the president says is, I guess, worthy of examination by you. The president said that up to 90 percent of the oil coming from the well would be captured in coming weeks. It seems rather ambitious.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: It does sound very ambitious, and we have heard lots of optimistic projections in the past about the oil being captured and the oil not spewing out. And those optimistic projections have not come to pass.

Right now, what BP says is that they're capturing about 15,000 barrels a day, and the new estimates that came out of the government just today of how much oil is actually spewing out of the well have grown to new heights, so that's less than half of their low-ball estimate of what's coming out. And they say it could be as much as 65,000 a day now.

So BP has - BP is trying new things to capture more of the oil, and there's a lot of fingers crossing that, in fact, they will be able to capture more of it. Because if you imagine, this oil is it doesn't disappear, just more and more and more of it is going into the deepwater of the Gulf and now more and more into the coastal areas.

NORRIS: The president referred to the spill as a consequence of this nation's failure to break its addiction to oil and other fossil fuels. He talks a little bit about his plans for outlining that addiction. So, I guess, he uses this as an opportunity to make that point.

SHOGREN: Right. I think the president and lots of Democrats and environmentalists have looked to the president to draw this connection between the oil spill and our addiction to oil. There's a great expectation that the president will push through Congress some kind of a bill that will deal with greenhouse gas emissions.

And so far the House has done something, but the Senate has not. And so there's a lot of hope that perhaps this will be the wakeup call that Americans need to understand that there is a big cost of our addiction to oil.

NORRIS: One last question, there was a lot of talk leading up to this address that the president might talk about redirecting the Mississippi where it flows into the Gulf to try to save some of the wetlands. We didn't actually hear specifics on that. Any idea of why not?

SHOGREN: Well, there weren't very many specifics about any of the things about restoring the environment, and maybe it's because - I think part of it is that the president talked about general aspirations, but he didn't want to say specific plans that he has in store. Because I think a lot of the plans are not hammered out yet. And he didn't want to raise too many false hopes, I guess.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you. That's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren and Scott Horsley. Thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

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