Gulf oil spill: In Louisiana, Obama criticizes BP advertising and dividend payments [Updated]
President Obama sharply criticized BP on Friday, saying the company should not waste millions of dollars on television advertising and dividend payments when the money would be better spent on people suffering from the spill. "My understanding is that BP had contracted for $50 million worth of TV advertising to manage their image in the course of this disaster," the president said.
"In addition, there are reports that BP will be paying $10.5 billion in dividend payments this quarter," he added in remarks to reporters. "Now, I don't have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations. But I want BP to be very clear they've got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf with the damage that has been done.
"What I don't want to hear is that they're spending that kind of money on shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising [but] they're nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the gulf who are having a hard time."
Obama's remarks came after a meeting with officials from Louisiana and other gulf states at the airport in Kenner, La., during his third visit to the gulf. The April 20 blowout of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig has resulted in the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Obama, who has been under public pressure to assume a more forceful role in responding to the spill, spoke to reporters for about 15 minutes. He sat at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table, in a small building on the airport Tarmac, between Admiral Thad Allen and senior White House energy advisor Carol Browner.
In the meeting were Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and others. He spoke in measured tones, while nonetheless expressing his annoyance with the London-based oil giant.
In apologetic commercials that began airing on national TV Thursday, BP chief executive Tony Hayward says, "The gulf spill is a tragedy that never should have happened," and adds, "To those affected and your families, I am deeply sorry."
BP shares have lost around a third of their value since the blowout as investors fear soaring cleanup costs and worry about the company’s ability to pay a dividend -- a major concern of British pension funds.
Two U.S. senators this week called on BP to suspend its annual dividend until full cleanup and liability costs become clear. Victims’ families and businesses damaged by the oil “deserve to know that BP will fulfill its obligations to them before its shareholders,” Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Charles Schumer of New York said in a letter to Hayward.
BP has been expected to announce it would maintain dividend payments, but the president's remarks seemed aimed at changing the company's mind. Last year, the company had $27 billion in cash flow from operating activities. So far, it has spent roughly $1 billion on response to the spill.
[Updated 3:53 p.m.: After meeting with officials and reporters, Obama visited a marina and bait shop in Grand Isle, one of the hardest-hit coastal towns. He was cheered by about 30 local residents as he shook hands under a house elevated on stilts, saying at one point, "We've got to get a family picture before I leave."
Many of those in the crowd said "thank you."
Sitting in the bait shop, a plate of shrimp and crawfish in front of him, Obama cautioned that the future will be painful. "This is going to be bad no matter what we do," he said. "We can hopefully minimize the damage but it requires good cooperation from state, federal and local."
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced that the president will greet the family members of those killed on the Deepwater Horizon at the White House on Thursday to offer his condolences in person. The president sent a letter and invitation to each of the families.]
-- Peter Nicholas in Kenner, La. and Margot Roosevelt in Los Angeles
Photo: President Barack Obama speaks to the press following a meeting with National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, left. Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters