Obama says BP must meet economic claims

BURAS, La./LONDON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told British Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday that he will insist BP Plc pays clean-up costs and meets economic claims from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Obama also said his frustration with BP was not about national identity after criticism from some in Britain that his rhetoric had taken on an anti-British tone.

Oil gushed from a blown-out undersea well for the 54th day, adding to the millions of gallons that have poured into the Gulf since an April 20 offshore rig blast killed 11 workers.

The ecological disaster spread along the U.S. Gulf Coast, contaminating beaches and wildlife habitats, killing birds, sea turtles and dolphins, and damaging the region’s lucrative tourism and fishing industries.

The ruptured well is estimated to be spewing out up to 40,000 barrels (1.7 million gallons/6.4 million liters) of oil a day, and it is only partly contained. The United States has told the London-based energy giant to come up with a better containment plan in two days.

In a 30-minute phone call, the U.S. and British leaders attempted to play down tensions over the oil spill. Obama said he had no interest in undermining the value of BP, according to a statement from Cameron’s office.

BP, a staple holding of British pension funds, has lost tens of billions of dollars of its market value and is under pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to suspend its dividend until the Gulf crisis is resolved and damages are paid out to individuals and businesses in the region.

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But Obama, according to a U.S. official, said he will insist that BP pays clean-up costs and meets economic claims from the oil spill.

Cameron, who took office last month, has come under pressure to do more to protect a company that accounts for 12 percent of all dividends paid by British companies.

The two leaders reaffirmed their confidence in the strength of ties between their countries.

“President Obama said to the Prime Minister that his unequivocal view was that BP was a multinational global company and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity,” Cameron’s office said.

BP expects the total bill for the clean-up to be $3 billion to $6 billion.

BP’s board, which has met weekly since the crisis started, could take up the issue of the dividend on Monday. But a source said a decision may not be made until after BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg has met with Obama at the White House on Wednesday.

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Before meeting with Svanberg, Obama -- facing criticism for not responding aggressively enough -- is due to return to the Gulf Coast on Monday for the fourth time since the crisis erupted. He plans to survey the response effect, and meet with Gulf residents and officials during a two-day visit.


On Saturday, news emerged that a U.S. Coast Guard official told BP that the company’s plans to contain the spill do not go far enough or include enough back-up measures.

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“BP must identify in the next 48 hours additional leak containment capacity that could be operationalized and expedited,” Coast Guard Rear Admiral James Watson said in a letter to BP dated June 11.

Watson said BP’s current plan did not go far enough to have backup resources in place in the event of equipment failure or other problems. “Every effort must be expended to speed up the process,” he said.

U.S. officials have said that the collection of oil and gas leaking into the Gulf of Mexico seems to have leveled off for now at about 15,400 barrels a day -- less than half the estimated daily leak.

States along the Gulf coast are increasing demands for financial compensation from BP, The Wall Street Journal reported.

State officials say they are feeling the effects, both environmentally and financially, and that they need much more than what BP is offering to recover lost wages and taxes.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum sent a letter to BP requesting that the company deposit $2.5 billion into an escrow account to cover potential losses, the Journal reported.

Rallies were planned on Saturday in more than 50 cities across five continents in what was dubbed “Worldwide BP Protest Day.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Obama should not be blamed for the spill, according to the advance transcript of a pre-taped interview on Bloomberg TV’s “Political Capital.”

“I would give him fairly low marks in terms of responding to the consequences of the spill, but stopping the leak, nobody could do any better,” Graham said. “We’re trying everything under the sun to stop the leak, and it’s not his fault that we can’t find a way to cap it.”

About one-third of Gulf of Mexico federal waters remains closed to fishing, and oil has spread to Florida’s Pensacola and Perdido passes, two gateways to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

At Perdido Bay, on the border between Florida and Alabama, orange booms were stained with thick brown oil as workers tied absorbent ‘pom poms’ to them to prevent the oil seeping further into the waterways.

“We want to make sure areas where there may be nesting, we want to have extra booms in those areas,” said Alexis Brooks, incident information officer at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Additional reporting by Tom Bergin in London and Jeff Mason in Washington; writing by Ros Krasny; editing by Mohammad Zargham