Thursday, June 17, 2010

BP boss Svanberg says 'we care about the small people' after oil spill faceoff with President Obama

Thursday, June 17th 2010, 4:00 AM

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg (left) apologized to President  Obama for the oil spill debacle during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room  of the White House.
Harrer/Bloomberg; Miller for News
BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg (left) apologized to President Obama for the oil spill debacle during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

WASHINGTON - After four grueling hours, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg came out of a White House faceoff with President Obama on Wednesday as the sorriest oil baron Washington has ever seen.

"We care about the small people," the Swedish-born Svanberg said awkwardly - twice - of the millions of Gulf Coast residents suffering because of the oil spill catastrophe. He apologized to "the American people."

Svanberg also apologized to Obama during a businesslike meeting in the Roosevelt Room with company execs, but at that point still hadn't committed to financing a $20 billion fund to make victims whole.

Enter Vice President Biden, the designated Bad Cop.

Sources told the Daily News that Biden leaned forward and bluntly informed the Blight Brigade they had no choice: If they didn't do the right thing and put the cash in escrow, it would be done to them.

A sorrier-still performance may come Thursday, when BP's better-known oil-stained wretch, CEO Tony Hayward, plans to tell a House committee he has been "personally devastated" by the disaster. There will be no gush of sympathy. "I expect him to be sliced and diced," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the panel's chairman.

More importantly for BP's victims, the company at last is putting money where its mea culpas are. Obama announced that BP, with some prodding, had agreed to put up the $20 billion to pay costs resulting from the devastation.

"This $20 billion will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored," Obama said. "The people of the gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them."

Even for a multinational behemoth like BP, that's real money.

It's twice what the company normally shells out in annual dividend payments and tops last year's whopping $16.8 billion in earnings. Kenneth Feinberg, who ran the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, will oversee the escrow account.

BP also agreed to establish a $100 million fund to compensate unemployed oil rig workers affected by Obama's moratorium on drilling and the closing of oil platforms. "We have always met our responsibilities and our obligations," Svanberg said, adding the action "should assure American people we mean what we say."

Svanberg also disclosed BP won't pay quarterly dividends to shareholders for the rest of the year, another Obama demand.

Still, even when doing the right thing, Svanberg managed to say the wrong thing.

Orange Beach, Ala., Mayor Tony Kennon laughed when he heard Svanberg's "small people" remark. "They can call me small, miniature, they can call me anything they want. Just write the check and send it to us," he said.

BP spokesman Toby Odone blamed Svanberg's not-quite-fluent English.

"It is clear that what he means is that he cares about local businesses and local people," Odone e-mailed The Associated Press.

Ben Orinson, a shrimper in Grand Isle, La., doesn't buy it.

"They don't care about us. They care about their reputation and covering their ass," he said.

No amount of compensation can satisfy Grand Isle hotel manager Stefani Lombardi.

"They ruined our livelihood for profit and they think that giving us a few bucks is going to fix it? They're wrong," Lombardi said.

kbazinet@nydailynews.com

With Thomas M. DeFrank in Washington and Lisa Lucas in Grand Isle, La.



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