President Obama met Thursday with families of oil workers killed when the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in April, leading to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The president also met separately Democratic and Republican congressional leaders on the Gulf oil situation, and his desire to move the country toward a new energy future.
Following up on sympathy letters he had sent earlier the president, joined by key Cabinet and other officials, welcomed families to the private meeting in the White House to offer his condolences.
Eleven people died when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, breaking the deep sea oil well and unleashing hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf.
A White House statement said the president told them he, the first lady, and his administration are behind them and will be there long after the cameras are gone as they go through their unimaginable grief.
He also told families that while he recognized offshore drilling is a part of the overall U.S. energy strategy, he could not reverse a ban on new deepwater drilling until proper safety measures are in place to prevent a similar tragedy.
Inadequate laws and regulatory standards in place to deal with a crisis as serious as the Gulf spill, and efforts in Congress to revise these laws, was a key focus of talks with congressional leaders.
The president said there was bipartisan agreement on the need to change that situation. "That we update the laws to make sure that the people in the Gulf, the fishermen, the hotel owners, families who are dependent for their livelihoods in the Gulf, that they are all made whole and that we are in a much better position to respond to any such crisis in the future," he said.
Speaking with reporters, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi directed anger at BP, saying the company has demonstrated a lack of integrity. She suggested that BP stop paying shareholders dividends until Gulf area residents are fully compensated. "They made $17 billion last year. They should have been paying these small businesses [in the Gulf] first," she said.
White House spokesman Gibbs reacted this way to Pelosi's remark: "The answer on this is not whether they pay their dividends, but if they are going to pay dividends, if they're going to spend $50 million on ad campaigns, then we certainly shouldn't hear about claims that aren't being paid," he said.
Talks with congressional leaders also focused on proposed clean energy legislation, including a so-called cap and trade program, which Republicans have labeled as a national energy tax. Only the House has passed a version of energy or climate change legislation.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell repeated a frequently-heard Republican assertion that the president and Democrats seek to use the Gulf oil tragedy to build support for final energy legislation. "In the U.S. Senate, even though the measure passed in the House, there is bipartisan opposition to a national energy tax and it has absolutely nothing to do with the environmental catastrophe that we are witnessing in the Gulf," he said.
On his hopes for moving more aggressively on the energy agenda, President Obama also welcomed a group of seven business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, to the White House.
"Although, obviously, our immediate task is to deal with a crisis that is affecting millions of people down in the gulf, we can't keep our eye off the importance of having an energy policy that meets the needs of the next generation and ensures that the United States is the leader when it comes to energy policy," he said.
President Obama leaves on Monday for the Gulf, his fourth visit to the region since the oil disaster began, visiting Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, all facing environmental and economic impact from the spill.