By Scott Wilson
Monday, June 14, 2010; 5:18 PM
THEODORE, ALA. -- President Obama acknowledged Monday that there are problems complicating the quick payment of damage claims to those affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but he pledged to resolve them in a meeting with BP executives this week.
His comments came after a briefing in Gulfport, Miss., with gulf-state governors, Coast Guard officials and others involved in the response to what Bill Burton, the White House deputy press secretary, called "a catastrophe the likes of which we've never seen before."
Flanked by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is leading the federal response, Obama said the discussion at the briefing included how best to coordinate skimmers and other boats already on the gulf to prevent the oil slick from coming ashore.
"We also talked about claims so that people in Mississippi and throughout the region are adequately compensated for the damages done," Obama said. "There are still problems with it."
Administration officials said over the weekend that Obama plans to force BP to establish an escrow account that would cover billions of dollars in future damage claims. Congressional leaders have suggested that the account, which White House officials do not expect BP to oppose, should hold as much as $20 billion.
Burton, speaking to reporters traveling with the president, would not specify a dollar amount.
At a later stop in Theodore, Ala., Obama said he has "begun preliminary conversations" with BP about how to structure claims quickly and fairly.
Obama's two-day, three-state swing along the Gulf Coast begins a consequential week in the administration's relationship with BP, a partnership of necessity now under increasing pressure as the ruptured well continues to spew oil into the sea.
"We're going to continue to hold BP and anyone else responsible for the disaster they created accountable," Obama said at a Coast Guard cleanup staging area in Theodore. He outlined the federal response to what he called an "ongoing assault," saying: "We are meeting the largest environmental disaster in our history with the largest environmental response in our history."
He warned of "painful" times ahead for local businesses, and during the same stop chatted with cleanup crews training for duty on the gulf.
The president will give his first Oval Office address Tuesday evening, and aides said it will focus on the response to the spill so far and the strategy for the months ahead. Obama will meet with BP executives the next day at the White House to discuss damage claims and the next steps in sealing the leak.
Allen told reporters that BP's latest plan calls for capturing 1.2 million gallons of oil a day by the end of the week. The company's current capacity is 756,000 gallons a day, he said.
But Allen said it is still unknown how much oil is flowing into the gulf, calling that "the $100,000 question," almost two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank. BP has outlined plans to capture 2.1 million gallons per day by the end of the month.
Obama's visit, his fourth to the Gulf Coast since the spill began, started at Coast Guard Station Gulfport in Mississippi, the calm water stretching like a gray sheet into the distance.
White-sand beaches along the route appeared pristine, if largely empty, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity high.
Obama held a working lunch with local business leaders, on a pier stretching into the gulf. His trip will take him to Florida later Monday.