Obama consoles oil rig victims' families

Barack Obama consoled relatives of the 11 workers killed in the Gulf oil spill disaster, acknowledging their "unimaginable grief" and assuring them that he would stand with them.

Barack Obama consoled relatives of the 11 workers killed in the Gulf oil spill disaster, acknowledging their "unimaginable grief" and assuring them that he would stand with them.

The US president's comments came on day 51 of the disaster as governmental pressure mounted on oil giant BP to compensate fully economic victims of the April 20 spill.

At the White House meeting with Mr Obama yesterday, one man who lost a son asked him to support efforts to update a law that limits the amount of money families can collect.

"He told us we weren't going to be forgotten," said Keith Jones of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"He just wanted us to know this wasn't going to leave his mind and his heart."

Mr Jones' 28-year-old son Gordon was working on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP when it exploded and then sank in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the worst environmental disaster in US history and creating one of Mr Obama's biggest challenges as president.

Mr Jones, a mud engineer, left behind a wife and two sons, a two-year-old and one born just a month ago. Mr Obama held the baby, Maxwell Gordon.

"He said he hadn't done that in nine years, held a baby that size," Keith Jones said later.

Mr Obama also updated congressional leaders from both parties on the response to the spill and the top government official overseeing the crisis invited BP executives to meet Mr Obama next week.

Amid the grandeur of the Red Room and the adjacent State Dining Room, Mr Obama addressed the grieving families as a group before he worked his way around the rooms, taking as much time as needed to console each family, Mr Jones said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr Obama expressed his condolences and told the families that he, his wife Michelle and the entire administration were "behind them and will be there long after the cameras are gone as they go through their unimaginable grief".

Mr Obama was joined by interior secretary Ken Salazar, White House energy adviser Carol Browner, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the crisis for the government.

The meeting lasted about 50 minutes and at one point Bo, the Obama family dog, was brought in.

Mr Jones said he and another son Chris asked Mr Obama to support changing the Death on the High Seas Act, a 90-year-old law that limits liability for wrongful deaths more than three miles offshore.

Mr Jones said the law was unfair and "not in keeping with the way we do things now".

Mr Obama promised to look into the matter, Mr Jones said.

Mr Jones is among four families that have sued Transocean, the rig's owner, as well as BP and other companies involved in its operation. The cases seek unspecified damages and are pending in federal courts in Houston and New Orleans.

They could be consolidated with more than 150 other lawsuits filed by fishermen, businesses and property owners claiming economic losses because of the spill.

Obama imposed a six-month halt to such deep-sea oil drilling after the accident, but some politicians and others want him to lift it, arguing that the freeze could idle tens of thousands of oil industry workers.

Courtney Kemp, widow of 27-year-old Roy Kemp of Jonesville, Louisiana, said at a news conference on Capitol Hill that she told Mr Obama the offshore drilling moratorium was devastating Gulf states.

She said Mr Obama "understood where we were coming from".

But in his conversations with the families, the president defended his decision to halt drilling, saying he wanted time to put additional safety measures in place to make sure something like the Deepwater Horizon explosion would not happen again.

Congressional leaders, meanwhile, stepped up the pressure on BP to compensate fully economic victims of the spill.

House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi said after the leaders met Mr Obama that "every taxpayer in America must know that BP will be held accountable for what is owed".

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell agreed that BP must "clean up the spill," but he also said Democrats should not use the tragedy to campaign for energy legislation he contended would amount to a "national energy tax".

Asked whether BP should cut its dividends to shareholders, Ms Pelosi said BP made £11.5bn (€14bn) last year and had a responsibility "to pay these damages" to businesses in the Gulf.

"Maybe people who receive dividends have deeper pockets," she said.

Mr Gibbs declined to comment on BP's legal obligations to its shareholders.

Late Thursday, the White House released a letter from Admiral Allen, the top federal official overseeing the oil spill, inviting BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and "any appropriate officials from BP" to meet senior administration officials next Wednesday.

Adm Allen said Mr Obama, who has yet to speak with any BP official since the explosion, would participate in a portion of the meeting.

Earlier Mr Gibbs did not rule out the possibility of a meeting next week between Mr Obama and BP chief executive Tony Hayward.

Meanwhile researchers studying the flow of oil from the blown-out well said that up to twice the amount of oil previously thought may have been spewing into the sea since the disaster.

The new figures could mean anywhere from 42 to more than 100 million gallons of oil have already fouled the fragile waters, affecting people who live, work and play along the coast from Louisiana to Florida - and perhaps beyond.

It is the third - and perhaps not last - time the US government has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing. Trying to clarify what has been a contentious and confusing issue, officials gave a wide variety of estimates.

All of the new spill rate estimates are worse than earlier ones - and far more costly for BP, which has seen its stock sink since the April 20 explosion.

Most of the estimates had more oil flowing in an hour than what officials once said was spilling in an entire day.

The spill - before June 3 when a riser was cut and then a cap put on it - was flowing at daily rate that could possibly have been as high as 2.1 million gallons, twice the highest number the government had been saying, according to US Geological Survey director Marcia McNutt, who is co-ordinating estimates. But she said possibly more credible numbers were lower.

The estimates are not complete yet and different scientific teams have come up with different numbers. A new team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute came in with higher estimates than all the others using multibeam sonar.

The Woods Hole estimate ranged from a million gallons a day to 2.1 million gallons. And if the high end of the Woods Hole estimate is true, that means nearly 107 million gallons have spilled since the rig explosion.

Even using other numbers that federal officials and scientists call a more reasonable range would have about 63 million gallons spilling since April 20.

If those 63 million gallons of oil were put in gallon jugs, they would line up side by side for nearly 5,500 miles. That is the distance from the spill to London, where BP is based, and then continuing on to Rome.

By comparison, Exxon Valdez, the previous worst US oil spill, was just about 11 million gallons. The worst peacetime oil spill, 1979's Ixtoc 1 in Mexico, was about 140 million gallons over 10 months.

The new figures mean Deepwater Horizon is producing an Exxon Valdez size spill every five to 13 days.

With all sorts of estimates for what's flowing from the BP well, some even smaller than the amount collected by BP in its containment cap, Ms McNutt said the most credible range at the moment was between 840,000 and 1.68 million gallons a day. Then she added that it was "maybe a little bit more".

No estimates were given for the amount of oil gushing from the well after the June 3 riser cut, which BP said would increase the flow by about 20%. Nor are there estimates since a cap was put on the pipe, which already has collected more than three million gallons.

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