WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders stepped up pressure on oil giant BP to fully compensate economic victims of the Gulf spill as President Barack Obama offered condolences Thursday to the relatives of the 11 rig workers killed in the April 20 explosion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “every taxpayer in America must know that BP will be held accountable for what is owed.” She spoke at the White House after Obama met with congressional leaders of both parties.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky agreed BP has to clean up the spill. But he said Democratic lawmakers shouldn't use the tragedy to try to build support for energy legislation that McConnell contended would amount to a “national energy tax.”
Asked if BP should cut its dividends to shareholders, Pelosi said, “I think it's appropriate for BP to be paying businesses in the Gulf. ... They have a responsibility under the law to pay these damages. They made $17 billion last year. Maybe people who receive dividends have deeper pockets.”
She said it was “appropriate for the government to insist that they obey the law. ... They have failed and misrepresented on every score.”
After meeting with the lawmakers, Obama said the existing law governing oil spills was passed “when people didn't envision drilling four miles under the sea for oil.” He said he was pleased that leaders in both parties agreed during the meeting that the Oil Pollution Act must to be updated to compensate Gulf residents who make a living off the local economy and its fisheries and tourism industries.
Obama has yet to talk with Tony Hayward, BP PLC's chief executive officer, about the response to the oil spill. Under questioning at Thursday's daily briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did not rule out the possibility of Obama meeting with Hayward next week. Hayward is scheduled to testify June 17 at a House Energy subcommittee hearing into the spill.
During their meeting, Obama was telling the families about his concern that offshore oil workers may have fewer rights under existing law than oil workers who operate on land, Gibbs said.
“He will tell the families that he is committed to working with Congress to ensure that any disparity in the law is addressed and that families receive due compensation,” Gibbs said.
Members of Congress promised this week to amend a 1920 law that limits liability for wrongful deaths more than three miles offshore.
Gibbs said Obama also wanted to hear the families' thoughts on changes the government can make to ensure that future deepwater oil drilling is safe. Obama put a temporary halt to such drilling after the explosion off Louisiana's coast.
Asked whether Obama thought the families of the 11 men had been lost in the focus on efforts to stop the millions of gallons of crude that have been gushing from the broken underwater well, Gibbs said, “They are certainly not forgotten.”
The president's private meeting with the families in the State Dining Room is part of his effort to show the public, unhappy with the handling of the catastrophe by the government and BP PLC, that he is on top of the situation.
Obama met Monday with Cabinet officials involved in the oil spill response and reiterated his earlier warning to the British oil company to not be “nickel-and-diming” business owners who are losing income because of the spill.
Obama has visited the Louisiana coast three times since the explosion, including stops last Friday and on May 28. He plans to return Monday and Tuesday for a trip that will take him to affected areas in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.