Obama speech from Oval Office urges action on clean energy bill

President Barack Obama says Americans will continue to fight the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for 'as long as it takes,' but he vows that BP will pay for the damage it's caused. (June 15)
By Scott Wilson and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

President Obama urged the nation Tuesday to rally behind legislation that would begin changing the way the country consumes and generates energy, saying the expanding oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is "the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."

In his first Oval Office address, Obama compared the need to end the country's "addiction to fossil fuels" to its emergency preparations for World War II and the mission to the moon. Hours after the government sharply increased its estimate of how much oil is flowing into the gulf, the president warned that risks will continue to rise because "we're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water." He called for fast Senate action on an energy bill that has already passed the House.

"There are costs associated with this transition, and some believe we can't afford those costs right now," Obama said. "I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy, because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security and our environment are far greater."

Even before the president addressed a prime-time television audience, congressional Republican leaders warned him not to use what he described as "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" to further his political agenda. But beyond the urgency of his appeal, his remarks were largely an 18-minute compilation of what he has said about the spill over the past several weeks.

His audience this time extended well beyond the Gulf Coast, where he just concluded a two-day visit, to an electorate that mostly disapproves of the way he is handling the crisis.

The fact that Obama himself chose to deliver his message from the Oval Office underscored the extent of the disaster, both in terms of its environmental and economic impact on the gulf region and the political ramifications it holds in a midterm election year. The spill, which began April 20, has challenged the administration's cultivated image of competence and Obama's skill in using the right tone to discuss a widening environmental catastrophe that is in many ways out of his control.

The government released new figures Tuesday showing that far more oil is flowing from the seafloor than believed as recently as last week. The Flow Rate Technical Group said as much as 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) of oil a day is escaping from the damaged well, a 50 percent increase from the last estimate.

BP announced plans earlier this week to capture 53,000 barrels (2.2 million gallons) of oil a day by the end of June. But the new figure highlights the extent of the challenge of plugging the leak, and the threat facing an increasingly frustrated and fearful Gulf Coast as the summer tourist season begins.

Obama is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning with BP executives to discuss response efforts and the establishment of escrow accounts to compensate those who the president said have been "harmed as a result of his company's recklessness."

He also announced the appointment of Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department official, to head the Minerals Management Service, which is responsible for regulating offshore drilling.

Senior administration officials said Obama's address -- which they described as coming at an "inflection point" in the crisis -- will help adjust the nation's focus from the immediate spill to a longer-term strategy for restoring the gulf region and changing the way the country uses energy. Obama said he has assigned Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, to draw up a long-term strategy for the gulf "as soon as possible."

Privately, one senior official said the speech was a direct effort to "wipe the slate clean," adding that the goal now is to "shift the conversation to something more future-oriented."

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