WASHINGTON — Dedicating new urgency to the Gulf oil spill, President Barack Obama accused BP of "recklessness" in the first Oval Office address of his presidency Tuesday night and swore to make the company pay for the massive damage it has caused to lives, businesses and shorelines.
He announced that he had asked former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan to be funded by BP PLC, in concert with local states, communities, fishermen, conservationists and residents "as soon as possible."
Obama did not detail what this plan should include or how much it might cost, a price sure to be in the billions of dollars.
Whatever the bottom line, he declared to his prime-time television audience, "We will make BP pay."
Still, 57 days into the crisis, oil continues to gush from the broken wellhead, millions of gallons a day, and Obama has been powerless to stem the leak. The sad episode has raised doubts about his leadership and his administration's response to what Obama has called the nation's worst environmental disaster.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows for the first time a majority of Americans disapproving of his handling of the situation.
Eight weeks to the day after an offshore oil rig leased by BP PLC exploded, killed 11 workers and sent tens of millions of gallons of crude flooding into the Gulf of Mexico, Obama's high-stakes speech came during a week of constantly unfolding drama.
Lightning even struck. A bolt hit the ship siphoning oil from the leak, injuring no one but halting containment efforts for five hours.
And a government panel of scientists said the undersea well is leaking even more oil than previously thought, as much as 2.52 million gallons a day — or enough to fill the Oval Office more than 22 times. The total spilled so far could be as much as 116 million gallons.
BP has had only modest success so far in stemming the flood of oil, but Obama said that within weeks "these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well." Later in the summer, he said, the company should finish drilling a relief well to stop the leak completely.
Much of the president's speech was devoted to a recitation of steps his administration has already taken — "from the very beginning," he said — to clean the oil, help the distraught people of the Gulf and prevent another environmental crisis.
"We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes," Obama said.
Likening that process to a long epidemic instead of a single crushing disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, he said the nation could be tied up with the oil and its aftermath for months "and even years."
Looking ahead to his showdown Wednesday morning with BP executives, Obama said he would "inform" them that the company must set aside whatever resources are required to make whole all residents and businesses hurt by the spill and to repair the immense ecological damage wrought by the oil.
That meeting was to be followed by a presidential statement, his fourth planned remarks on the spill in three days. Later in the week, BP leaders take the Washington hot seat again, appearing before more congressional hearings.
Obama said that the new Gulf restoration plan would go beyond just repairing the effects of the crude on a unique, teeming ecology that was already battered by the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"We must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment," the president said.
Obama also urged the nation and Congress to get behind his goal of passing sweeping energy and climate change legislation, a key domestic priority of his presidency that had become a long shot. Although Obama supports placing a price on heat-trapping carbon emissions, he did not directly say that.
"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," he 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."