THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Obama vows recovery for stressed Gulf Coast

BP will create compensation fund, aides say

President Obama took a ferry past a natural gas rig en route to Fort Morgan, Ala., yesterday. President Obama took a ferry past a natural gas rig en route to Fort Morgan, Ala., yesterday. (Charles Dharapak/ Associated Press)
By Erica Werner
Associated Press / June 15, 2010

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THEODORE, Ala. — In a newly optimistic tone, President Obama promised yesterday that “things are going to return to normal’’ along the stricken Gulf Coast and the region’s fouled waters will be in even better shape than before the catastrophic BP oil spill.

He declared Gulf seafood safe to eat and said his administration is redoubling inspections and monitoring to make sure it stays that way. And his White House said yesterday that it had wrested apparent agreement from BP PLC to set up an independent multibillion-dollar compensation fund for people and businesses suffering from the spill’s effects.

“I am confident that we’re going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,’’ the president said.

That pledge was reminiscent of George W. Bush’s promise to rebuild the region “even better and stronger’’ than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush could not make good on that promise, and Obama did not spell out how he would fulfill his.

With Obama hoping to convince a frightened Gulf Coast and a skeptical nation that he is in command, he is marshaling the tools at a president’s disposal: a two-day visit via Air Force One, helicopter, and boat to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and a prime-time speech tonight from the Oval Office.

He also will have a face-to-face White House showdown tomorrow with the executives of the oil company that leased the rig that exploded April 20 and led to the leak of millions of gallons of coast-devastating crude.

From an enormous waterside staging facility in Theodore, one of 17 where cleanup crews ready themselves and equipment to attack the spill, Obama mixed optimism about the ultimate result with warnings that the recovery could take awhile.

“I can’t promise folks here in Theodore or across the Gulf Coast that the oil will be cleaned up overnight. It will not be,’’ he said, after encouraging workers as they hosed off and repaired oil-blocking booms. “It’s going to be painful for a lot of folks.’’

In Washington, documents released by a congressional committee indicated that BP took measures to cut costs in the weeks before the well blowout as it dealt with problems. A company engineer described the doomed rig as a “nightmare well.’’

The comment by BP engineer Brian Morel was made in an e-mail April 14, six days before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 people and began the nation’s worst environmental disaster. The e-mail was among dozens of internal documents released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the explosion and its aftermath.

In a letter to BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, Representatives Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, and Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, noted at least five questionable decisions BP made in the days leading up to the explosion. “The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety,’’ said Waxman and Stupak. Waxman chairs the energy panel; Stupak heads a subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

A spokesman for BP could not immediately be reached for comment. Obama is scheduled to meet tomorrow with BP officials, including Hayward. The BP chief will appear before Congress later in the week.

The Oval Office address, which will be televised nationally at 8 p.m., is intended to detail specific and potentially expensive new steps for responding to the spill. That is expected to include an ambitious plan to restore the fragile Gulf Coast ecosystem. The president also will argue for passage of comprehensive energy and climate change legislation.

On the victims’ compensation fund, White House spokesman Bill Burton said the administration and BP were “working out the particulars,’’ such as the amount to be placed in an escrow account and how it would be administered.

The account would be run by an independent third-party entity, as Obama has demanded, Burton said.

The administration had said Obama was ready to force BP, if necessary, to set up the fund.

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