President Obama meets with BP executives Wednesday for the first time since the company's deep-water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico blew up eight weeks ago.
A new government estimate says the runaway well is spitting out up to 60,000 barrels of oil every day. That's two or three times as much as BP has been able to capture each day.
In his first use of the Oval Office to address the nation, Obama promised to clean up the oil-soaked area, restore the Gulf environment and compensate people whose jobs have dried up because of the spill. He also used the Gulf Coast disaster to renew his push for cleaner forms of energy.
Obama likened the oil spill to an ongoing epidemic that the country will be battling for months or years to come. But beyond treating the symptoms of oil-stained beaches and out-of-work fishermen, he also wants the country to come to grips with what he regards as the underlying disease: a longstanding dependence on 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," Obama said.
The House of Representatives already has passed sweeping legislation to promote clean energy and curb greenhouse gases. But a similar bill in the Senate — authored by Democrat John Kerry and Independent Joe Lieberman — has been blocked by filibuster threats, and would need support from at least one Republican to have a chance.
So far, that vote is not there. Obama acknowledged that this month in a speech at Carnegie Mellon University.
"The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months. I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can," he said.
Environmentalists have been urging the president to make that case more aggressively, saying Americans are eager for ambitious energy and climate legislation — even if it raises the price of a gallon of gas.
Recent polls have supported that notion, including one released this week by the Pew Research Center and one from the League of Conservation Voters that said two out of three voters feel this way.
League President Gene Karpinski said the BP spill should be the "final wake-up call."
"Band-Aids are not enough," Karpinski added. "We need to move in an entirely new direction and begin to reduce our dependence on oil. And that's why Congress needs to pass a comprehensive bill."
Supporters argue that cleaner alternative sources of energy will flourish in the U.S. only if buyers and sellers of traditional fossil fuels have to pay a price for the greenhouse gases those fuels produce.
Sens. Kerry and Lieberman insist that price need not be prohibitive to be effective. On Tuesday, Lieberman touted a new EPA estimate saying his bill would cost the average family less than $150 a year.
"Is the American household willing to pay less than $1 a day so we don't have to buy oil from foreign countries, so we can create millions of new jobs, so we can clean up our environment? I think the answer is going to be yes," Lieberman said.
That may be the answer for Democrats and Independents. But in the League of Conservation Voters' survey, Republican voters were more likely to oppose an energy and climate bill. And Republican lawmakers decry the proposal as a "job-killing energy tax."
In his speech Tuesday night, Obama said the nation can't afford not to change its energy mix. But he left the door open to supporting less ambitious energy legislation — like the bill put forward by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), which promotes efficiency but does not include a carbon tax or limits on greenhouse gases.
"All of these approaches have merit and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead," Obama said. "But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet."
The president noted that Americans' huge appetite for oil is what pushed companies like BP to drill in ever deeper, riskier waters.
The millions of barrels of oil now fouling the Gulf of Mexico would have powered the U.S. economy for less than four hours.