, WASHINGTON, Jun 14 – President Barack Obama sets off on Monday on a fourth visit to states stricken by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in a sign of the seriousness of the disaster both for the country and his presidency.
The visit comes ahead of a rare White House prime-time televised address on the subject on Tuesday, marking a significant elevation in the Obama administration\’s strategy on the oil crisis.
The White House said meanwhile that Obama ordered BP to set up an escrow account to pay legitimate claims and let an independent panel oversee the process.
"The president is going down to the Gulf on Monday and Tuesday to the states he hasn\’t visited – Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. When he returns he will address the nation from the White House," top Obama aide David Axelrod said Sunday.
"We\’re at a kind of inflection point in this saga. He wants to lay out the steps we\’ll take from here to get through this crisis," Axelrod, Obama\’s senior adviser, told NBC television\’s "Meet The Press" program.
US presidents usually reserve the formal setting of a prime-time televised address from the White House for moments of national crises, including wars and disasters.
Obama has yet to give an Oval Office address to the American people, though it had not been decided whether he will appear at the presidential desk flanked by US flags when he speaks at 0000 GMT Wednesday.
Obama\’s address and the more stringent demands on BP suggest a concerted effort to be more aggressive on the disaster as angry Americans are confronted by disturbing images of oiled birds and toxic crude spoiling fragile wetlands.
BP has failed several times to seal the flow, and a first relief well that could provide a permanent solution is not expected to be ready until the second week of August at the earliest.
The president will be making his first overnight trip to spill area after three previous day trips to Louisiana.
Each state he will visit has a lucrative fishing industry and popular beaches which form the backbone of vital tourism sectors.
Businesses in the Gulf region, ranging from fishing to tourism, are suffering. Some workers are finding temporary employment with BP to help in the clean-up effort, but longer-term prospects for many are bleak.
Alabama Governor Bob Riley said that BP should compensate the tourist industry as well as fishermen and oil workers.
"I really don\’t care how they do it, whether they set up an escrow account or not. But we have to do something," Riley said on CNN\’s "State of the Union" program.
Obama is to insist at a high-stakes White House meeting Wednesday with BP bosses that the firm establish an independently administered fund to pay out claims related to the nation\’s worst ever environmental disaster.
A containment system is siphoning up some 15,000 barrels – 630,000 gallons – of oil a day to the surface via a mile-long pipe, but estimates indicate the same amount of crude is probably still leaking into the Gulf.
BP is expected to suspend its next dividend payment to shareholders, due on July 27, in a bid to quell growing anger in the United States, where many accuse it of deliberately underestimating the flow rate to try to reduce its liability, which is worked out by the barrel.
Analysts estimate that including the cleanup, compensation claims, government penalties, and a host of civil lawsuits, BP\’s total bill from the catastrophe could reach $100 billion.
In London, BP said Monday that its costs to date of sorting out the oil spill had risen to about $1.6 billion.
That figure includes "the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, grants to the Gulf states, claims paid, and federal costs," BP said in a statement.
The firm\’s share price has fallen more than 40 percent since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. The rig sank two days later, fracturing the pipe now spewing the oil.
In the past 55 days, oil has reached 110 kilometres of shoreline along the Gulf Coast, including parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. About one-third of the Gulf\’s fishing waters remain off-limits due to health concerns.