BP Suspends Dividends, Sets Up Gulf Fund

President Obama may not have cleaned up the oil spill yet — but on Wednesday he succeeded in extracting a big financial commitment from BP. After a four hour meeting with BP executives at the White House, the oil giant agreed to put $20 billion in an escrow fund to pay the claims of Gulf residents hurt by the spill.

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After four days of intense negotiations and a four-hour meeting at the White House, the president got a big financial commitment from BP. The oil giant agreed to put $20 billion in an escrow fund to pay the claims of gulf residents hurt by the continuing spill.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

President Obama has been open with Americans about his limited powers to stop the spill. I can't suck it up with a straw, he said last week. But yesterday, he showed he did have the power to do something else that might help. After his first face-to-face meeting with BP's chairman and top executives, the company, at the urging of the White House, agreed to create a $20 billion claim fund.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is not a cap. The people of the gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them. BP has publicly pledged to make good on the claims that it owes to the people in the gulf, and so the agreement we reached sets up a financial and legal framework to do it.

LIASSON: BP will still be liable for all the damage it's caused, and it's still under investigation by the Justice Department. However, BP will not have to put all the money up at once. That will help the company maintain the confidence of its investors, which is a practical matter the president needs it to do.

Pres. OBAMA: BP is a strong and viable company, and it is in all of our interests that it remain so.�So what this is about is accountability. At the end of the day, that's what every American wants and expects.

LIASSON: The fund will be administered not by the government or by BP, but by an independent third party. Carol Browner, the top environmental official at the White House, said there's no limit to how often an individual or business can apply to the fund.

Ms. CAROL BROWNER (Director, White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy): Under this, we will - people will be able to apply over and over again, as is necessary. And if two months later you're still not working, you can come back and file another claim.

LIASSON: The president also pressed BP to make another financial commitment.

Pres. OBAMA: Additionally, BP voluntarily agreed to establish $100 million fund to compensate unemployed oil rig workers affected by the closure of the deepwater rigs.

LIASSON: This fund may help solve one of the president's political problems in the gulf. Ever since he put a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling, he's been trying to figure out how to mitigate the economic damage that's caused in the drilling-dependent gulf.

After he finished reading his remarks, Mr. Obama shared what he had told BP's chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, about the people he had met in the gulf.

Pres. OBAMA: I indicated to the chairman that throughout this process, as we work to make sure that the gulf is made whole once again, that the standard I'm going to be applying is whether or not those individuals I met with, their family members, those communities that are vulnerable, whether they are uppermost in the minds of all concerned. That's who we're doing this work for.

LIASSON: Minutes later, a contrite Chairman Svanberg was in the White House driveway.

Mr. CARL-HENRIC SVANBERG (Chairman, BP): We made it clear to the president that words are not enough. We understand that we will - and we should be - judged by our actions. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the American people on behalf of all the employees in BP. Through our actions and commitments, we hope that over long term, that we will regain the trust that you have in us.

LIASSON: At times over the last two months, BP has served as a foil and a villain for the White House. But after yesterday's meeting, BP's chairman appeared to emerge as a partner as he conveyed a message the White House wants voters to hear about the president's commitment.

Mr. SVANBERG: I must say that he is - he comes across as a - he's frustrated because he care about the small people, and we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don't care, but that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people.

(Soundbite of reporters)

LIASSON: To many in the U.S., those words sounded condescending. After a few hours of uproar on the Internet, the Swedish Svanberg issued another apology, this time for quote, speaking clumsily.

The big furor over small people almost obscured the other news of the day for BP. In addition to establishing the two escrow accounts, the BP board decided it will not issue any dividends for the rest of the year.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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Miami's Seaquarium: No Oil Yet, But Worries Aplenty

Killer whale at Miami Seaquarium i i

hide captionA killer whale reaches for the sky at the Miami Seaquarium.

courtsey of Miami Seaquarium
Killer whale at Miami Seaquarium

A killer whale reaches for the sky at the Miami Seaquarium.

courtsey of Miami Seaquarium

The Gulf oil spill is hundreds of miles away, but the Seaquarium — Miami's 55-year-old home to dancing dolphins and killer whales — is preparing for the worst.

Several times a day, visitors can watch shows starring dolphins, killer whales and sea lions. General manager Andrew Hertz says the Seaquarium's location — perched on Virginia Key in the middle of Biscayne Bay — gives it an edge over other aquariums and marine parks like Central Florida's Sea World.

"We pull our water for our animals straight out of the bay. And we filter it and we give them clean water. But the quality of our water is only as good as the quality of the bay," Hertz says.

The Threat's Far Away — For Now

Lately, concerns have diminished that the Gulf’s loop current could bring oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill around the Florida peninsula and into the Atlantic. The oil is in a circular eddy that so far has kept it in the Gulf.

But Seaquarium officials say a change in current or wind patterns — or a hurricane — could instantly change that — polluting the water that the marine park’s 1,000 birds, mammals and fish depend on.

"I take in 10,000 gallons a minute, 24 hours a day," says Einar Gustafson, who is Seaquarium’s park services director and the man scrambling to develop a plan to safeguard the cleanliness of its seawater.

"We’re looking at wells to augment our water supply. We’re looking at oil/water separators. There are a lot of different options in there," says Gustafson.

And none of them are cheap. A few years ago, Seaquarium invested $3 million on a new filtration system. Now it looks like the marine park will need millions more to ensure its water remains free of petrochemicals.

Fish At Risk

Hertz says the park’s most vulnerable animals are its fish — and he points to the rays swimming in one of its outside tanks.

"We’ve got spotted eagle ray right here coming by and then we’ve got some Southern sting rays in here. And they look like fairly hardy animals. But these guys are reliant on the cleanliness of this water for their oxygen," he says.

And unless the water remains perfectly oil-free, they’ll suffer.

The Seaquarium is now working on a multimillion-dollar funding proposal that it plans to take to the state and eventually BP.

It’s those kind of unforeseen and far-flung expenses that will continue to bubble up in the months ahead and the seem likely to make the Deepwater Horizon the nation’s most expensive oil spill yet.

Oil Imperils Native American Town, And Way Of Life

Rosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou i i

hide captionRosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou, La. She is the spokeswoman for the tiny Native American community that is struggling to hold on to its livelihood since the oil spill.

John Burnett/NPR
Rosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou

Rosina Phillipe on a flatboat in Grand Bayou, La. She is the spokeswoman for the tiny Native American community that is struggling to hold on to its livelihood since the oil spill.

John Burnett/NPR

Grand Bayou, La., is a tiny fishing village of Native Americans in the vast wetlands south of New Orleans. You can only get there by boat. Before the Cajuns, Spanish, French and Americans came, the ancestors of the people of Grand Bayou were living in the marsh, catching seafood. And the folks there today are still doing the same thing.

But now they’re scared, because the Gulf oil catastrophe is encroaching.

The Roots Are Deep

The people of Grand Bayou tend to stay put. Like 66-year-old fisherman Raymond Reyes, with his shaggy white hair and a cross tattooed on his leathery, brown biceps.

"Why leave heaven and go to hell? This is heaven here. Y'know?" Reyes says. "I tried in Texas and I can't make it. All I seen was cement and Mexicans. I can't understand Mexican and I don’t like cement. I like water."

For the surviving members of the Atakapa-Ishak people, water is their identity. They're one of the small Native American tribes that still live on the bayous and marshes of southeast Louisiana. While other marsh residents have taken jobs in the oil and chemical industries, the people of Grand Bayou resolutely try to live as their forebears did — fishing, shrimping, oystering, crabbing and trapping.

"Welcome to summertime in Louisiana," says Rosina Phillipe, the 54-year-old spokeswoman for the village. She's in her flatboat, wearing colorful jewelry and her hair in a long black braid.

"This is Grand Bayou, the village. And these are some of the homes damaged during Hurricane Katrina," Phillipe says.

Before Katrina, 23 extended families lived in Grand Bayou. The hurricane’s epic tide and wind decimated the little fishing outpost.

By this spring, Grand Bayou was just beginning to get back on its feet. In the past five years, volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Services have rebuilt homes for nine families, with more planned.

But the oil spill has jeopardized the village’s recovery. Residents who've been gone since Katrina are questioning whether it's worth moving back if they can't fish the bayou.

The Next Challenge

Phillipe moved into her newly built house on stilts last August. She climbs the stairs to a simply furnished living room cooled by ceiling fans.

She's pressed for time. Phillipe was planning to fly to Washington, D.C., in the afternoon to impress upon Louisiana's members of Congress and anyone else who'll listen that the oil slick threatens the very existence of her indigenous community.

"Grand Bayou for us is our place in the universe. This is where since time began the Creator saw fit to set our feet here. And we're going to do whatever we have to do to remain," Phillipe says.

But what can they do? Fishermen say the oil slick is merely 35 minutes away from Grand Bayou by boat. Like the people of other coastal communities, they don’t know how long their shrimp and oyster grounds will be off-limits or whether their waterways will be poisoned.

The Marsh Is Their Provider

But unlike other coastal communities, Grand Bayou depends on the water not just for its livelihood, but for its daily sustenance.

"We've never faced this before. No matter what happened before, at the very least we were able to feed ourselves. That’s been taken away from us. That’s serious, that’s real serious," Phillipe says.

This is an American community whose residents have not grown accustomed to running to the supermarket to buy ingredients for supper. As village elder Ruby Ancar says, the marsh is their provider. "One of the things my dad told me, the only thing that a Grand Bayou person needed from the grocery store was sugar, coffee and milk — oh, and rice, yes," Ancar says.

The waters of Grand Bayou have also traditionally provided recreation for the Atakapa-Ishak people — who are, today, a mixture of Native American, black and Cajun. Some still speak French at home.

Phillipe's 18-year-old daughter, Ani, a budding environmentalist, says she never wants to leave this bayou. "You just go out in the marsh and it's freedom. We were out chasing the porpoises in boat, we were alongside the boat and we were just riding with them up the whole way just up and down the bayou. I mean stuff like that you can’t do anywhere else," Ani says.

Though the village has dwindled in size, it has hung on despite a host of threats — violent ones like hurricanes, and gradual ones like cultural dispersion. Rosina Phillipe cannot imagine living anywhere else.

"We are who we are because of where we are. We are Grand Bayou people, and you can’t be a Grand Bayou person if you’re living in Ohio," Phillipe says, letting out a slight laugh.

She’s going to Washington because she believes the Atakapa-Ishak have to find a way to survive this latest calamity. She says she owes it to her ancestors.

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