WASHINGTON – Top Obama administration officials demanded "immediate public clarification" from British Petroleum about paying for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in a letter released on Saturday, as the White House kept up heat on the British energy giant over the environmental disaster.
"The public has a right to a clear understanding of BP's commitment to redress all of the damage that has occurred or that will occur in the future as a result of the oil spill," Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in a letter to BP chief executive Tony Hayward.
"Therefore, in the event that our understanding is inaccurate, we request immediate public clarification of BP's true intentions," Salazar and Napolitano said in the letter, dated May 14.
Crude oil is gushing unchecked from BP's blown-out offshore well a mile deep on the floor of the Gulf and the company has yet to figure out a way to stem the flow.
The spill might prove to be one of the most devastating environmental disasters the United States has ever faced, Salazar and Napolitano wrote in the letter, released to the media on Saturday and dated Friday, the same day an angry President Barack Obama lashed out at oil industry executives over their response to the calamity.
There have been concerns about a current U.S. law that limits energy companies' liability for lost business and local tax revenues from oil spills to $75 million.
U.S. lawmakers are seeking to raise the maximum amount of money BP could be required to dole out for economic losses caused by the spill to $10 billion.
Estimates vary widely, but analysts say the total bill from the spill could easily reach into the billions of dollars.
SEEKING TO AVOID POLITICAL FALLOUT
Salazar and Napolitano cited repeated statements by company executives that BP was taking responsibility for the spill and would cover spill-related costs.
"Based on these statements, we understand that BP will not in any way seek to rely on the potential $75 million statutory cap to refuse to provide compensation to any individuals or others harmed by the oil spill," they wrote.
In the aftermath of the spill, the Obama administration was faulted by some over the speed of its response, with a few critics drawing comparisons to his predecessor George W. Bush's slow response to the Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated a swath of the U.S. Gulf coast.
The White House rejects such criticism, but as the leak begins to move ashore, it wants to head off any political fallout, especially with congressional elections looming in November.
Administration officials also want the company involved, not U.S. taxpayers, to fund the cost of the cleanup.
In an interview published in a British newspaper on Friday, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward appeared to play down the spill.
"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant that we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total volume of water," Hayward was quoted as saying in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
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