WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wrested a $20 billion compensation guarantee and an apology to the nation from British oil giant BP on Wednesday, announcing the company would set up a major claims fund for shrimpers, restaurateurs and others whose lives and livelihoods are being wrecked by the oil flooding into the Gulf of Mexico.
Applause broke out during a community meeting in Orange Beach, Ala., on the news.
"We asked for that two weeks ago and they laughed at us," Mayor Tony Kennon said. "Thank you, President Obama, for taking a bunch of rednecks' suggestion and making it happen."
Obama had said he would "make BP pay," and the company's chairman said after four hours of intense White House negotiations that BP was ready.
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The unending oil spill saga had yielded almost no good news before this. Creation of the fund — to be run by an administrator with a proven track record — is the first big success Obama has been able to give to gulf residents and the nation in the eight weeks since the explosion.
Huge as the $20 billion seems, both Obama and London-based BP PLC said it was by no means a cap.
The deal also adhered to what Obama had said was his non-negotiable demand: that the fund and the claims process be administered independently from BP. It won't be a government fund, either, but will be led by the administration's "pay czar," Kenneth Feinberg, better known as the man who oversaw the $7 billion government fund for families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The April 20 explosion of an offshore oil rig killed 11 workers and sent millions of gallons of crude spewing into the water from the broken well a mile below the ocean's surface — as much as 118 million gallons so far and still flowing.
Though the company hopes to install equipment soon to capture as much as 90 percent of the escaping oil, the leak is expected to continue at least until relief wells are finished in August.
The use of the BP escrow fund is intended to avoid a repeat of the painful aftermath of 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska, when the fight over money dragged out in courts over roughly two decades.
"What this is about is accountability," said Obama in brief remarks in the State Dining Room after a four-hour White House negotiation session with BP executives. "For the small-business owners, for the fishermen, for the shrimpers, this is not just a matter of dollars and cents. ... A lot of these folks don't have a cushion."
On the driveway outside, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg apologized for "this tragic accident that should never have happened."
"We care about the small people," he said.
That comment wasn't as well-received as the promise of compensation.
"We're not small people," said Justin Taffinder of New Orleans. "We're human beings. They're no greater than us. We don't bow down to them."
By evening Svanberg was apologizing again. "I spoke clumsily this afternoon, and for that, I am very sorry," he said in a statement. "What I was trying to say — that BP understands how deeply this affects the lives of people who live along the gulf and depend on it for their livelihood — will best be conveyed not by any words but by the work we do to put things right for the families and businesses who've been hurt."
In creating a victims' compensation fund, BP will use noncore U.S. assets as security for its $20 billion obligation.
If BP had to borrow money in the future to pay any of its obligations, that might prove difficult because rising investor concerns could raise the company's borrowing costs.
Svanberg announced the company would not pay dividends to shareholders for the rest of the year, including one scheduled for June 21 totaling about $2.6 billion. The company will make initial payments into the escrow fund of $3 billion this summer and $2 billion in the fall, followed by $1.25 billion per quarter until the $20 billion figure is reached.