WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said BP agreed Wednesday to set aside $20 billion to pay victims of its Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout that has created the worst environmental calamity in American history.
BP's chairman apologized for the spreading catastrophe, and said he was suspending the company's quarterly dividend as part of its commitment to the claims process.
Obama said the $20 billion did not represent a cap on the British-based BP's liability but rather a fund that becomes immediately available to pay the financial claims of Gulf coast residents and businesses.
The president spoke largely without emotion as he announced BP's agreement to establish the huge fund. The oil geyser that continues spewing crude oil into the Gulf _ aside from it's obvious damage to the environment and the people of the coast _ has been a major distraction for a president battling a determined Republican political opposition.
A new AP-GFK poll showed that a majority of American's think the president has not handled the crisis well, a significant outcome in the countdown to November congressional elections that could cost Obama his Democratic majority in one or both houses of Congress.
Shortly after Obama announced the outcome of the meeting, BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg told reporters he wanted to apologize for the spill and said he appreciated Americans' patience as the oil giant works to shut down the gusher.
Svanberg expressed sorrow for victims of the spill, saying "This tragic accident ... should have never happened." Eleven people died in the April 20 explosion and fire at the well site.
Also, Obama said, BP voluntarily agreed to establish a $100 million fund to compensate laid-off oil right workers affected by the president's six-month drilling moratorium.
The $20 billion fund will be directed by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw payments to families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There will be a three-member panel to adjudicate claims that are turned down.
"This is about accountability. At the end of the day, that's what every American wants and expects," Obama said after a meeting that stretched more than four hours.
The president said he implored Svanberg in a private conversation to remember that the $20 billion was not just about "dollars and cents" but a fund to help people still trying to come back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic downturn since the 1930s Great Depression.
"A lot of these people don't have a cushion," Obama said he told the BP chief.
Obama sought to assure Americans that the $20 billion in BP money would not be the end of its liability.
"This fund will not supersede individuals' _ or states' _ rights to present claims in court," he said. "BP will also continue to be liable for the environmental disaster it caused, and we will continue to work to make sure they address it."
Wednesday's meeting with BP followed Obama's Oval Office address to the nation Tuesday night. Responding to critics who said Obama was too moderate in that speech, a forum saved by president's for national crises, senior adviser David Axelrod said that Americans "were not asking him to get angry. They were asking him to get results."
The eight-week disaster in the Gulf, with oil still pouring from the broken well, is jeopardizing the environment as well as the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people across the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
BP has taken the brunt of criticism about the oil spill because it was the operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig that sunk. It also is a majority owner of the undersea well that has been spewing oil since the explosion.
But when the day of reckoning finally comes, BP may not be the only one that has to pay up. That's because Swiss-based Transocean Ltd. owned a majority interest in the rig. Anadarko Petroleum, based in The Woodlands, Texas, has a 25 percent non-operating interest in the well.
Word of the fund was well received on the Gulf Coast. Applause broke out during a community meeting in Orange Beach, Alabama, when Mayor Tony Kennon briefed participants on the White House meeting.
"We asked for that two weeks ago and they laughed at us," Kennon said. "Thank you, President Obama, for taking a bunch of rednecks' suggestion and making it happen." Obama visited Orange Beach on Monday.
Feinberg, the official who will direct the effort, is known as Obama's "pay czar," setting salary limits for companies getting the most aid from a $700 billion government bailout fund. He also ran the $7 billion government compensation program after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was a job that lasted nearly three years as he decided how much families should get, largely based on how much income victims would have earned in a lifetime.
As pay czar, Feinberg has capped cash salaries at $500,000 this year for the vast majority of the top executives at the five major companies that received bailout funding: American International Group, GMAC Financial Services, Chrysler Financial, Chrysler and General Motors.