the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing on BP Oil Spill Response Legislation by Melody Barnes, Carol Browner, and Jeff Liebman

10:02 A.M. EDT

MR. SHAPIRO:  Thank you.  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks for getting on.  Today we're going to have a conference call with some senior administration officials.  The call is on the record. It will detail the legislation that's going to Congress that's targeted at strengthening the response to the BP oil spill and recovery efforts already underway in the Gulf.

On the call you're going to hear from Melody Barnes, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council; Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; and Jeff Liebman, Acting Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

I will start with Carol, who is going to give an overview of the effort, why this legislation is important for accountability, and the tools that it provides.  Melody will then go into what we're trying to accomplish for families.  And then Jeff will be available to talk about any additional authorities we're seeking for agencies and why.

So without further ado, Ms. Browner.

MS. BROWNER:  Thank you.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster, which can seriously damage the economy and environment of our Gulf states and jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who live throughout the Gulf region.

Since the initial explosion on the drilling rig occurred, the federal government has launched a coordinated and all-hands-on-deck, relentless response to this crisis.  No one in the administration will rest or be satisfied until the leak is stopped at the source, the oil in the Gulf is contained and cleaned up, and the people of this region are able to get back to their lives and livelihoods.

BP will be paying for all costs of stopping the spill and cleaning it up.  And in fact, let me just quote Lamar McKay in his testimony just as recently as yesterday.  He said, “Let me be really clear.  Liability, blame, fault -- put it over here,” he said.  “Our obligation is to deal with the spill, clean it up and make sure the impact of that spill are compensated, and we are going to do that.”

The spill has also made it very clear that updates are needed to current laws governing the liability that companies have for any damages -- for any damage they cause while drilling and transporting oil.  The Oil Pollution Act, for instance, was passed 20 years ago when offshore exploration and production in deepwater represented a small portion of our energy supply. 

To deal more generally with the harm created by oil spills as well as to toughen and update these laws, the President is sending up to Congress a legislative package that will lift the caps on damage, increase the ceiling on the amount of money that can be expended on recovery per incident from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and provide other authorities and funding to help the federal government respond quickly to this crisis.

The legislation includes unemployment assistance, food and nutrition assistance, and help for those affected by the spill to find work, aid to fisheries and fishermen who have been severely impacted by the spill, funding to increase inspection of fish and seafood to protect the safety of the food we eat, and the establishment of one-stop shops for those in need of aid.

The bill also provides funding for additional inspections and enforcement of safety regulations on other offshore platforms; and comprehensive evaluations of new policies, procedures and actions needed in light of this incident.

By passing this legislation we will clear statutory roadblocks and speed assistance to those impacted by the oil spill, as well as quickly mobilize assistance should the spill become worse and BP is not settling claims quickly.

While we are asking for additional funds, in some cases, the federal government will not relent in pursuing full compensation for the expenses it has occurred and damage caused by this spill. And the legislation contains provisions to help us recoup those costs.

Let me now turn it over to Melody Barnes.

MR. SHAPIRO:  I, just briefly, before Melody starts, wanted to let all of you know that momentarily you’ll be getting a fact sheet that details some of this legislation.  So it should be coming to your inboxes shortly.


MS. BARNES:  Thank you so much, Carol. 

Obviously of primary concern to the President is ensuring that we provide necessary assistance for families and individuals that are being impacted by the oil spill.  And as Carol mentioned, the legislation that’s being sent to Congress will ensure that the federal government can act quickly to provide assistance in case the spill gets worse or in case the responsible parties are not paying claims to affected individuals.

We intend to do that through a series of one-stop assistance centers, making sure that people can quickly and easily get access to the kinds of resources that I'm about to mention, and to also ensure that there’s no wrong door, that people won’t be given the runaround in their effort to get assistance in their time of need.

We’re going to provide several different forms of assistance in the legislation that’s being sent forward, the first being oil spill unemployment assistance.  This is modeled after disaster unemployment assistance.  It would be triggered, in this case, in the result of a Spill of National Significance.  It will provide up to 26 weeks of assistance to those who are affected, but we are doing this in a way that those who can’t qualify for regular unemployment insurance will be able to be eligible -- so, for example, those who are self-employed, as many fishermen are, or those who may not have worked the requisite number of hours, other forms of eligibility under normal unemployment insurance assistance.  The benefit levels will be determined by state law.

Another form of assistance that we are going to include in the legislation is nutrition assistance.  This is predicated on the SNAP program, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  And we, again, are providing this in the case of a Spill of National Significance, just like the unemployment insurance assistance.  But in this case, our goal is to make sure that people can access these resources much more quickly than those normally can be accessed under SNAP -- the normal SNAP program. 

So there are streamlined certification processes and also fewer eligibility factors and reduced procedural requirements.  The benefits will be provided in the same way that normal SNAP benefits are provided, through the electronic benefits transfer card.

We also are including here a provision that enables the Department of Agriculture to provide food directly to states and distribute that food to those who are in need.

And finally, employment assistance -- and we’re doing this by expanding the capacity of our Workforce Investment Act training and employment programs, so the local one-stop centers. And we’re doing this obviously at the state and local level by providing funding assistance to localities and ensuring that we can provide needed training and assistance to unemployed workers -- again, fishermen and others who are out of work as a result of the oil spill -- and making sure that those who have been laid off get the kind of training and increased occupational skills that they may need during this period of time.

MR. LIEBMAN:  Nearly all of the costs that federal agencies are going to incur as a result of the spill will get charged to the responsible party, and this legislation -- legislative proposal contains additional provisions to make sure that any additional costs that are incurred because of the legislation gets passed on to the responsible party.

It also -- to make sure that agencies have the funds they need to do some activities immediately, it provide some funding to agencies that need to act in response to the spill.  This includes some funding for the FDA to increase their inspections of fish to make sure that the fish American consumers are eating is safe.  It includes funding for Interior Department, for MMS, to do increased inspections of all of the oil drilling facilities that they monitor.  It includes some extra funding for the EPA to do some additional studies of the environmental impact of the spill. 

But I want to emphasize that most, if not -- and certainly the majority of the additional costs that would come out of this legislation will get charged to the responsible party and the legislation specifically makes clear that that is the case.

Q    Good morning, everyone.  When you say lifting the cap on damages, are you talking about retroactively increasing BP’s liability, or is this for future incidents lifting the cap?

MS. BROWNER:  Yes, we are updating the statute to address all situations and, yes, we are lifting the cap retroactively.

Q    Is there an ex post facto problem in doing that?

MS. BROWNER:  No, we do not believe so, because what we are doing is updating the statute and it covers all companies.

Q    Okay, thanks.

Q    Could I ask if you’ve spoken to BP?  And BP swore up and down yesterday that they’d pay everybody everything.  What exactly are you doing that would ensure that that they do that?

MS. BROWNER:  BP, as you know, has said that they intend to cover all the costs.  We have told them -- we have been in meetings with them -- that we take that to mean all.  In the meantime, though, we are updating this statute as a matter of policy, as well as making sure that their commitment, the commitment by the company, that they will be held to it.

Q    Thank you.

Q    Could you give us an idea as to the timing you expect on this, and the logistics?  It will go up to the Hill today presumably.  How long will it take to get passed and what does it need to go through?

MR. LIEBMAN:  We hope to get this passed as soon as possible.  There are a number of vehicles moving in this work period and we hope to work with Congress to get it done in the next few weeks.

Q    So you expect in the next few weeks that it will get passed.  Have you had any feedback already from lawmakers that indicates support or any issues that they’re concerned about?

MR. LIEBMAN:  This needs passing as soon as possible so that we can get the tools in place to take care of the folks in the Gulf.

Q    Yes, clearly, you want it as soon as possible, but my question is, what kind of feedback have you gotten from lawmakers.  Is there anything in particular that they like or that they object to that you expect to be hurdles?

MS. BROWNER:  Yes, the Hill has been notified that this legislation will be coming up shortly.  As you’re probably aware there are a number of bills that have already been introduced in both the House and the Senate, so the folks are actively engaged; hearings are underway.  And we’re going to do everything in our power to move this as quickly as possible.

Q    Great, thanks, Carol.

Q    Thank you all for taking my question.  Obviously, you all have been tracking this very closely.  Do we have any sense of what the actual economic damages are?  Any range yet?  And if not, when can we expect such a figure?

MR. LIEBMAN:  We’re setting it as closely as we can, but, frankly, it’s changing very quickly and it varies across the states.  But we don’t have an accurate number.

Q    And can I just ask one small follow-up?  Why is there no exact figure -- just looking at the fact sheet -- in the legislation for what size or, excuse me, how high do you want the ceiling to be raised on the damages that the government can collect?

MS. BROWNER:  This is Carol Browner.  We think it’s important to work with Congress on determining what that number will be.  As you know, there are some bills that have been introduced, but we will be working with them to determine what the right number is.

Q    Thank you very much.

Q    Yes, I was wondering if this is going to include a per-barrel tax increase to go toward this recovery fund?  Are you guys calling for that, too, or is this -- does this not include that?

MR. LIEBMAN:  The legislation calls for a one-cent-per-barrel increase in the tax, both from eight cents to nine cents immediately, and then from nine cents to 10 cents when it’s currently scheduled to go from eight to nine in 2017.

Q    You said you want to work with Congress to set a liability cap.  Some of the legislation proposed already is $10 billion.  Is that sort of the ballpark that you guys are expecting?  And can you give me sort of a total figure of the cost of this bill, and would all that be paid by BP?

MR. LIEBMAN:  The total new discretionary spending in this bill is $118 million.  We expect that the overall majority of that would end up being reimbursed by BP.

Q    And on the liability cap?

MR. SHAPIRO:  We’re going to work with Congress on that.

Q    As far as, do you think the $10 billion that’s been proposed by Congress as a cap already is a ballpark that you guys are looking at?

MR. SHAPIRO:  We’re going to work with Congress on it.  Don’t have a ballpark for you.

Q    Hi, everybody.  Yes, I was going to ask about the retroactive nature of this, but that’s already been asked.  So I wonder if anyone could comment on the offshore drilling provision of the climate bill that's going to be introduced today by Senators Kerry and Lieberman.  Is that something that the White House supports?

MS. BROWNER:  Hi, this is Carol Browner.  We applaud Senators Kerry and Lieberman for their tireless work in drafting this legislation.  We think this is an important step forward.  We continue to believe, the President believes that comprehensive energy reform is crucial.  We need a bill that will help us break our dependence on fossil fuels, create clean energy jobs, and put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

We have seen portions of the bill; we have not seen the entire bill.  We will be reviewing it in the coming days and will continue to work in the Senate to secure passage of the comprehensive legislation.

Q    Yes, hello.  Two questions.  One involves the $118 million in discretionary spending you believe that this legislation would encompass, the majority to be reimbursed by BP. Is this the kind of discretionary spending -- you expect $118 million each year?  Is this a repeated sort of funding situation? And the other question is going a little further on what was just asked -- do you guys -- are you able to state whether you support the legislation under Kerry-Lieberman that would allow states to ban oil drilling within 70 miles off their coast?

MR. LIEBMAN:  The $118 million is one time.

MS. BROWNER:  Again we’re going to be looking at the Kerry-Lieberman legislation.  Obviously, in light of the situation in the Gulf of Mexico, this legislation -- the debate around offshore drilling is going to be a significant one, and so we want to take a look at it.  And then we’ll be working with the Senate to see how best to proceed.

Q    Good morning, everybody.  Could you talk a little bit about the FDA seafood inspections?  I wonder how worried Americans should be about seafood coming from the Gulf, and whether the increased inspections will be soon enough and increased enough to comprehensively make sure no bad seafood is getting into the food system.

MR. SHAPIRO:  That's probably best answered by the daily press conference happening down at the JIC every day.  They’ve done a lot on the food safety and know -- these folks are here to talk about the legislation.

Q    Well, but the legislation talks about increasing money so that FDA can do more inspections, and I just wonder whether the increase will be enough to be really sort of a comprehensive barrier against tainted seafood.

DIRECTOR BARNES:  Well, obviously in addition to the concerns that the President has to make sure that the families working in the Gulf are taken care of, we want to make sure that those who are eating -- eating out of our food chain and our food supply are also equally protected.  So the FDA will continue to act vigilantly.  We are providing additional resources to make sure that they are able to do so, and we will continue to do that as we monitor the situation very carefully.

MS. BROWNER:  And at this point, all of the safeguards are in place in terms of the appropriate fish closures, the appropriate inspections.  And so we have no reason to think that seafood is not safe at this point.  We have to remain vigilant and I think, again, as has been said, you can get sort of a full outline of everything that’s happening right now to ensure that the food supply is safe.

Q    Now, the $118 [million], that’s the total for the bill? And do you subtract the $29 million that goes to the Interior Department for money outside?  And can you give us a break -- I know you said the majority, but is that half is paid for by BP, or can you be more specific?

MR. LIEBMAN:  So the $29 [million] for Interior is a component of the $118 [million].  To the extent that a component of the $118 [million] is directly related to the current disaster, we will be able to charge it to BP.  There are some things -- for example, inspecting other oil wells in other parts of the country where we’re going to be doing increased activity  -- that it’s unclear whether we’ll be able to get reimbursed from the responsible party for that.  And that’s why we need appropriations now to make sure we can do all the things we need to do.

Q    And how hard do you think it’s going to be to get reimbursed by BP if they’ve already paid claims to fishermen, for example, for their damages, than paying another $15 million for unemployment, or retraining?  Is that going to be a major battle?

MS. BROWNER:  Well, first of all, we are going to, as I said earlier -- we take BP at their word.  They say they intend to pay for all costs.  And when we hear “all,” we take it to mean all.

It’s obvious people aren’t allowed to double-dip, an individual can’t get reimbursed one place and then attempt to get reimbursed for the same economic impact somewhere else.  But to the degree that we are using federal dollars to compensate individuals, we will claim that against BP.

Q    Thanks for doing the call.  If I could just ask a little more about the legislation.  You said the Hill has been notified.  Have you run it by Republicans?  Is this going to be done in like a pre-packaged way direct to the floor and out by Memorial Day?  Or does this need to go through committee and kind of get hashed out with amendments and things?  And who will introduce it?  Have you been told what committee or whatever it might go to?

MR. LIEBMAN:  I think it’s too early to tell the exact legislative strategy, but we have in our notifications talked to people on both sides of the aisle.

Q    Have you got anything back from them?  I mean, okay, we’ll look at it when you get here, or, yes, we agree to that in principle or in detail?

MR. LIEBMAN:  I think there is a wide understanding that there is a strong need right now both to make sure federal agencies have the capacity they need to respond to this event and to make sure that we provide the assistance that people in the Gulf need.

MR. SHAPIRO:  We got time for two more.  No other questions?

Q    Yes, the Mexican News Agency.  Thank you for taking my question.  I am wondering if you are considering an international dimension, specifically, the potential damage to Mexico?  Have you had any kind of contact with the Mexican government to see if they can get some reimbursement in case there is evidence of damage to Mexican waters?

MR. SHAPIRO:  We have been in touch with the Mexican government, and I’d refer you over to the Coast Guard, who is working with State Department on any international needs or requests for assistance.

Q    Hi, yes, I’m just wondering if you can explain the differences between the various liabilities and the claim caps.  In your fact sheet that you sent out, you said that the funds will be raised -- the cap on the fund will be raised to $1.5 billion, the cap on the natural resources damage would be raised to $750 million.  But then you said that the other liability claim cap you want to negotiate with Congress.  Can you explain the difference of why you’ve left that final cap on negotiations open?

MR. LIEBMAN:  The first sort of cap you described are on the overall resources in the existing trust fund.  What we’re trying to do is make sure that the Coast Guard and the other agencies responding can get access to the funds they need when they need them, rather than having to stop activities while they wait for appropriations.  And so the move -- lifting the cap from $1 billion to $1.5 billion -- and the component of that is for natural resources, from $500 [million] to $750 [million] -- is a part of that effort to make sure that the existing trust fund resources can be tapped as soon as they’re needed to respond to this spill. 

There’s a separate issue of what the allowable damages are for the responsible party, and that’s the issue that we look forward to working with Congress on.

MR. SHAPIRO:  Thank you all for participating in the call.  And thank you, Melody, Carol, and Jeff for your time today.  And I hope everyone has a great day. 

10:26 A.M. EDT