By Michael D. Shear and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010; A05
Obama warned BP officials Friday against "nickel-and-diming" the economic victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill even as the company spends billions of dollars to pay out dividends and millions for an ad campaign to burnish its image.
The stern statement, reminiscent of last year's presidential finger-wagging at big bonuses for bank executives, came as the company struggled with a cap on the leak at the seafloor and as local fishermen and small-business owners expressed fear to the president about the nearing oil slick.
"I want BP to be very clear they've got moral and legal obligations here in the gulf for the damage that has been done," Obama said in brief remarks after meeting in New Orleans with top federal and state officials overseeing the gulf crisis.
"And what I don't want to hear is, when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they're nickel-and-diming fisherman or small businesses here in the gulf who are having a hard time," the president said.
Company officials said BP had successfully placed a cap over a pipe connected to the damaged well, and the national incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said the company was collecting as much as 1,000 barrels a day. But the area where the cap is attached continued to belch forth clouds of oil and gas, clearly visible on live video feeds.
"It's not a perfect seal, so if there's enough pressure, the oil can actually get through the rubber gasket and get out," Allen said.
The White House has been fighting back aggressively against criticism that Obama has been too slow to respond and too personally aloof from the human tragedy unfolding along the Gulf Coast.Asserting control
In his third visit to the region since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, Obama sought to highlight the government's control of the situation and to show empathy for the region's victims. During his trip, officials announced he will meet at the White House next week with the families of the eleven men killed on the rig.
At Camardelle's Live Bait and Boiled Seafood in Grand Isle, La., Obama met with an oyster fisherman, a marina owner, two store owners and a shrimper. They sat around a picnic table overlooking the water, two shrimping boats docked behind them. As Obama's motorcade made its way to the meeting, families along the route held signs proclaiming "HELP US!" and "God Help us all." On one, Obama's "Hope" poster had the words "What now?" scrawled across his forehead.
It was on behalf of that sentiment that the president appeared most animated, telling reporters that he had assigned officials to make sure BP is not being miserly with its support for the region.
He said they will "look over BP's shoulder . . . to make sure that claims are being processed quickly, fairly, and that BP is not lawyering up essentially when it comes to these claims. They say they want to make it right. That's part of their advertising campaign. Well, we want them to make it right."
Following Obama's remarks, BP announced that the company would soon begin sending a second round of payments to Gulf Coast residents and business owners, bringing to $84 million the total amount the company has spent to offset lost income or profit.
Some of the region's officials and residents continued to express frustration at the process of filing claims with the company.Residents push back
Louisiana Attorney General James D. "Buddy" Caldwell on Friday filed a state court action seeking detailed information about payments and processing of claims. Caldwell said the action "was a last resort in trying to get information from BP" to ensure that people are treated fairly as they seek remuneration. "I was hopeful that BP would cooperate and coordinate its response with the state," he said. "However, that does not appear to be the case."
Ellis Lebeouf, 62, a fisherman in Montegut, La., said recently that he had been left "dead in the water" by the spill but had received no money from BP. "When you take someone's livelihood away from them, that's serious," he said.
Even as Obama toured the region, the race to stop the gusher of oil continued. Kent Wells, a senior vice president at BP, said the company would soon attempt to close four valves or chimneys designed to let some oil and gas to flow through for a time. He said BP wanted to move cautiously so that the force from the liquids surging from below didn't lift the new apparatus off the well and to make sure that water didn't combine with gas to clog the device.
"We must remember we now have 12 hours' experience with this. It's never been done at 5,000 feet before," Wells said.
Officials mounted new assessments of the oil's spread from aboard a "hurricane hunter" aircraft. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco observed oil sheen wrapped around the isles 40 miles southeast of New Orleans.
There is no doubt there is oil under the surface, Lubchenco said from the cockpit as the aircraft dropped 15 probes along the northern edge of the Loop Current, which could carry oil through the Florida Keys.
"It's a shame, huh?" University of Miami oceanography and meteorology professor Nick Shay said while looking out a window as the plane skirted the crowded, oil-slicked Deepwater Horizon site.
Meanwhile, BP chief executive Tony Hayward and BP's board chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, sought to soothe investors, who have driven the company's share price down nearly 40 percent since the rig disaster. But the pair were noncommittal about the fate of the company's dividends, which are paid out quarterly at a current rate of $10.5 billion a year.
"Future decisions on the quarterly dividend will be made as they have always been, on the basis of all circumstances at the time," Svanberg said during a conference call with investment analysts.
Staff writers Dan Zak in Pascagoula, Miss., Theresa Vargas and Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.