GULFPORT, Miss. — The White House said Monday BP appears willing to set up a massive victims compensation fund, as President Barack Obama set out on a fact-finding tour in the stricken Gulf Coast that he said would help him get tough with the oil company's leaders.
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Spokesman Bill Burton, speaking to reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One to the Gulf, said the White House and BP were "working out the particulars," such as the amount of the fund and how it will be administered. The account would be run by an independent third-party entity, Burton said, and would run into "the billions of dollars," although he wouldn't give a specific amount.
"We're confident that this is a critical way in which we're going to be able to help individuals and businesses in the Gulf area become whole again," the spokesman said.
BP's board was meeting Monday in London to discuss deferring its second-quarter dividend and putting the money into escrow until the company's liabilities from the spill are known.
The administration had said Obama was ready to force BP, if necessary, to set up the fund, and Burton said Obama aides are "confident we have the legal authority" to do that.
Obama's two-day trip to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is his latest step as the administration tries to come to grips with the nation's worst environmental disaster. The president plans to address the nation from the Oval Office Tuesday night after his return, and will announce some new steps to restore the Gulf Coast ecosystem, already battered before the spill, said a senior administration official. The source spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the president's announcements.
Then on Wednesday Obama is meeting for the first time with BP executives, probably including the company's much-criticized CEO, Tony Hayward. Later in the week, company officials will have to face Congress in hearings on the spill.
The White House has been using every power of the presidency to extract concessions from BP as efforts continue to stop the leak. They add up to Obama's most concerted efforts so far to assert leadership in face of the calamity.
Burton said, for example, that Obama on Tuesday night will address both worker safety and food safety "to make sure the American people know we're doing everything we can and we're monitoring in each and every place possible."
Obama also will use the speech to argue for passage of comprehensive energy and climate change legislation, a case he has been making recently almost every time he addresses the spill. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said he Monday hopes Obama will directly support legislation that puts a price on carbon dioxide emissions produced by coal-fired power plants and other large polluters.
The symbolism of using the Oval Office for an address for the first time in Obama's presidency was deliberate, and a decision made by the president himself, Burton said.
Obama's first stop on Monday was a briefing at a Coast Guard station here on Mississippi's coast, where he said that the two days in the region would help him prepare for Wednesday's showdown with BP. In particular, Obama said there continues to be problems with claims for damages and with effective coordination.
"We're gathering up facts, stories, right now so that we have an absolutely clear understanding about how we can best present to BP the need to make sure that individuals and businesses are dealt with in a fair manner and a prompt manner," the president said.
He then headed to lunch with some local residents.
The administration said earlier Monday that BP had responded to a letter sent over the weekend asking the company to speed up its ability to capture the spewing oil from its well 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface.
In its response, BP said it would target containing more than 2 million gallons of oil a day by the end of June, up from about 630,000 gallons of crude a day now. High-range estimates from researchers advising the government have said that as much as 2.1 million gallons a day could be billowing from BP's runaway well.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said BP's commitment would be reviewed over the next couple days by outside industry experts to "make sure it's going to be responsive."
Asked how much oil is still being released daily despite the containment efforts, Allen said it remained unclear. "That's the $100,000 question," he said on Air Force One.
Regardless, the leak won't be killed for good until relief wells are completed in August.
As of Monday morning, between 40.7 million and 114.5 million gallons of oil have spilled in the Gulf of Mexico since the Apr. 20 oil rig explosion, according to estimates of spill rates made by scientists advising the federal government. That far outstrips the Exxon Valdez disaster.
BP said its costs for responding to the spill had risen to $1.6 billion, including new $25 million grants to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this story.