WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama summoned Americans on Tuesday to a "national mission" to move away from reliance on oil and develop alternative sources of energy, demanding that Congress move quickly to overcome "a lack of political courage and candor."
Speaking to a national television audience from the Oval Office, Obama also promised a long-term plan to make sure the gulf states suffering from the oil spill are made whole again. He said he was appointing Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy and the former governor of Mississippi, to develop a Gulf Coast restoration plan in cooperation with states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, conservationists and gulf residents.
Even as Obama was preparing his speech, the government released a new estimate of the amount of oil flowing from the well, declaring that as much as 60,000 barrels a day could be spewing into the Gulf of Mexico each day, a sharp increase over the estimate last week of 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day.
"Today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude," Obama said. "We cannot consign our children to this future. 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."
For Obama, the 18-minute address, in which he spoke from his desk, took place in a far different venue from the crowded campaign rallies, international university halls and banquet rooms where he has produced some of his most soaring speeches. This time, Obama, wearing a dark blue suit and light blue tie, struck a solemn but hopeful tone as he spoke of the American ingenuity he said was needed to help the country rein in its reliance on oil.
Seizing on the widening oil calamity in the Gulf of Mexico to push for legislation he has advocated since his campaign, Obama said he was willing to look at approaches from Democrats and Republicans, including raising efficiency standards for buildings as well as cars and trucks.
But, he warned: "The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet."
Obama delivered the speech the evening before he was to meet at the White House with the top executives of BP to demand that they agree to establish an independently administered escrow account of billions of dollars to pay claims stemming from the disaster.
He said that in his meeting today at the White House with the chairman of BP's board, Carl-Henric Svanberg, he would "inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness."
Lawyers at the White House and for BP have been negotiating for days about an escrow account. While Obama has not put a figure on the account, Senate Democrats have called for $20 billion.
Obama also moved to address one of the weaknesses exposed by the spill, lax oversight from the agency with most direct authority to regulate offshore drilling, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service. He said he had named Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department prosecutor and inspector general, to restructure the agency to make it a tougher regulator.
Obama likened the search for alternatives to oil to the effort to put a man on the moon and effort to build planes and tanks in World War II.
"Time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom," Obama said. "Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny — our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how to get there. We know we'll get there."
Obama described the oil spill variously, using metaphors of war and plague, saying it is "assaulting our shores and our citizens" and in its spread is "like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years."
"But make no mistake," he said, "we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
In the nearly two months since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, BP and government scientists have tried and failed at the quick options for plugging the spewing leak in the gulf.
Just back from his fourth trip to the Gulf Coast, Obama described the toll on the residents there, describing "a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost."
"I refuse to let that happen," he said.