WASHINGTON – The much-anticipated showdown Wednesday at the White House between President Obama and top BP executives turned into no-nonsense business meeting in which the oil giant agreed to pay $20 billion into an escrow account to cover claims associated with the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

There were also apologies from BP’s chairman of the board, Carl-Henric Svanberg — to the president in the Roosevelt Room, and then to the American people when Svanberg and his grim-faced fellow executives went before the cameras in the White House driveway.

Both sides got what they wanted out of the encounter. The administration, under fire for how it has responded to the environmental calamity, can boast of creating a huge pot of money for easing the pain of Gulf Coast residents. BP, though poorer on paper in the short run, got some much-needed clarity on its long-term liability, plus an explicit statement from Obama that the administration doesn’t want to see BP driven into bankruptcy.

“BP is a strong and viable company, and it is in all our interests that it remain so,” Obama said in remarks to reporters in the State Dining Room. “This is about accountability. At the end of the day, that’s what every American wants and expects.”

The morning meeting, which ran several hours longer than expected, was Obama’s first face-to-face encounter with BP executives since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in a fireball April 20. Although their partnership of necessity has been strained by the continuing spill, which, according to recent estimates, has dumped upward of 85 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, the administration and BP officials hammered out the key details of their agreement over several days prior to the White House session.

Under the deal, BP will pay $5 billion annually over the next four years into an escrow account for damage claims from the Gulf, setting aside an equivalent amount of U.S. assets as collateral until the fund reaches $20 billion. The figure is not a cap on the potential damages, and the company received no liability waiver as part of the agreement.


The thorniest issue in recent days, however, appears to have been resolved with a compromise. Since last week, administration officials have said that BP should pay the lost wages of oil industry workers sidelined by the administration’s six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling. That stance put BP’s stock price in a nose dive, and BP officials made clear that such claims would be beyond the pale.

Instead, the president Wednesday asked BP for a voluntary contribution to a foundation that will support unemployed oil industry employees. BP agreed, offering $100 million.

“We made clear that we do not think this is a liability for the company. The president said he’s concerned about those workers. He asked if there was something we could do as a voluntary gesture,” said Jamie Gorelick, a Washington lawyer who serves as an adviser to BP and sat in on the meeting.

Obama participated at various times in the discussions, which senior administration officials described as a “negotiation,” and met alone afterward with Svanberg. Attorney General Eric Holder also participated in much of the session, a sign of the potential criminal liability the oil company may face.

“We have made it clear to the president that words are not enough. We understand that we will and we should be judged by our actions,” Svanberg said when he faced the cameras after the meeting. He added, “I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the American people on behalf of all the employees of BP, many of whom are living on the Gulf Coast.”

He said BP for the rest of this year will not pay dividends to shareholders.


The new fund will be administered by Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who oversaw a similar fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and who more recently was the Obama administration’s special master for executive compensation at firms receiving federal bailout money. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is managing the federal response to the spill, said Wednesday that BP has already paid $81 million in claims, exceeding the $75 million cap on damages established by federal law two decades ago after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

“The president’s goal, as he said in the meeting, is to make sure there are adequate funds to help the people of the Gulf get back on their feet,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who attended the meeting. “Those are his shareholders, and that’s who he’s trying to protect.”

As the two sides were meeting in Washington, BP announced that it had begun using a second containment system to capture oil leaking from the well, which according to the latest scientific estimate is gushing between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day (1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons).


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