By Scott Wilson and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; A01
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."
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."
But Obama spoke only in general, often lofty terms about the need for Congress to pass energy reform legislation this year, a point he has made at least twice in the past month. He did not call for a price to be placed on carbon, even though one senior administration official said he thinks that is the most effective way to reduce U.S. energy consumption and protect against climate change.
A presidential push for energy reform could energize a dispirited Democratic base heading into the fall campaign season. Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama on a range of issues -- including the still-stumbling economy and his escalation of the war in Afghanistan -- and the president's top advisers consider energy and the environment issues where he could work to restore his standing. But administration officials doubt the energy bill has enough support to pass in the Senate.
"The votes don't exist now," one senior White House official said. "But he is going to press for it."
The Oval Office address was Obama's most pointed attempt since the spill began to explain how the crisis should be leveraged on behalf of long-term reform, and it could well be his last chance to do so this year on a national scale. He said he will listen to ideas from all parties, adding that "the one approach I will not accept is inaction."
Until his national address, the president focused his attention mostly on the gulf itself, and he spoke hours after returning from his visit to Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
On his fourth and most extensive trip to the region, Obama toured staging areas being used in the response and met with local officials and business owners worried about the enormous slick offshore. He traveled by helicopter, ferry and motorcade along a seaside highway bordering white-sand beaches, booms floating offshore along much of the route. He spoke hopefully to many of the people he met, delivering a variety of pep talks while also warning that the Gulf Coast faces "painful" times ahead.
"The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight," Obama said. "Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude."
Republicans seized on the president's approach as further evidence of what they say is his over-reliance on the government to solve the nation's biggest challenges.
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said that "the White House may view this oil spill as an opportunity to push its agenda in Washington, but Americans are more concerned about what it plans to do to solve the crisis at hand."