Obama to push BP to set up oil-spill damage fund

President Obama will try this week to exert more control over the handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by meeting with BP executives and pressing them to set up an escrow fund to pay damage claims and to address the nation on the environmental disaster.

Obama will make this fourth visit to the gulf region on Monday, and he will speak to the nation Tuesday evening.

“He wants to lay out the steps we’re going to take from here to get through this crisis,” said White House adviser David Axelrod, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

He will meet at the White House on Wednesday with BP executives, including its chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg. The president wants the company to agree to create a “substantial” fund that would be administered independently, Axelrod said.

“Our mission is to hold them accountable in every appropriate way,” Axelrod said. “He is going to be very clear about what our expectations are in terms of taking care of the people who’ve been damaged by this crisis.”

From the beginning, BP executives have promised to pay all “legitimate” claims arising from the oil spill. But those promises have not reassured all those affected by the disaster. They include fishermen, oil workers and business operators who have lost their livelihoods. It also could include the thousands of hotels, restaurants, tour boats and other businesses along the Gulf Coast that depend on tourism. Some fear that BP could declare bankruptcy or be taken over by another company in an effort to limit its liability.

Administration officials downplayed the possibility of a BP bankruptcy, but they want a commitment from BP to set aside a fund so claims can be paid quickly.

Gulf states also are putting the squeeze on BP. The attorney general in Florida and the state treasurer in Louisiana want BP to put a total of $7.5 billion in escrow accounts to compensate the states and their residents for damages now and in the future.

“At the end of the day, my concern is Louisiana,” state treasurer, John Kennedy, said Saturday. “BP ultimately will do what BP thinks is best for BP.”

The governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida said their summer industry already had been badly damaged, even though no significant amount of oil had reached their beaches.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi blamed “sensational” press coverage that he said had scared away tourists who believed, wrongly, that his state’s beaches had been fouled.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said BP should compensate the tourist industry for its losses, just like fishermen and oil workers. “I really don’t care how they do it, whether they set up an escrow account or not,” Riley said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“But we have to do something. If you look at what’s going on with the economy and the state of Alabama and Mississippi, Louisiana and now Florida, we’re going to have to have some level of compensation, because our tourist season here is essentially from Memorial Day to Labor Day. And with the beaches the way they are this morning, it’s going to be very, very difficult to sustain the economic balance that we’ve had in the past.”

Asked about who should receive compensation in all of these far-flung businesses, Riley replied: “Every one of them. … I don’t think there is a dividing line.”

But even with Florida and Louisiana, BP might have a hard time complying, and if it did, it could hasten the company’s spiral downward.

That’s because as of March 31, BP had $6.8 billion in cash and cash equivalents available.

Experts say BP wouldn’t necessarily need to use cash to fund the accounts the states are asking for. Instead, the company could borrow money to comply. That, however, presents a potential problem because the company’s borrowing costs are likely to be a lot higher due to investor concerns.

On Saturday, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke by phone and sought to ease any diplomatic tensions between the two over the handling of the oil spill. While Obama has been under pressure in the United States to take a strong stand against BP, Cameron has been under pressure in Britain to stand behind the oil giant, whose stock is crucial to British pension funds.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.