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I would have fired BP chief by now, Obama says

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

President Barack Obama says he would have fired BP's CEO Tony Hayward over controversial comments downplaying the Gulf oil spill — if the executive had been working for him.

In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's TODAY broadcast Tuesday, the president added his voice to calls for Hayward's resignation amid claims from a former EPA lawyer that BP is a "recurring environmental criminal."

Some 25 million to 39 million gallons of oil are estimated to have gone into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.

The BP executive last month complained about the amount of time he is spending dealing with the disaster, saying "I would like my life back," and also played down the spill's effect. The Gulf was "a big ocean," he said, adding "the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest."

"He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements," said Obama, who will be heading back to the Gulf next week for his fourth trip since the disaster began 50 days ago.

The president also defended not having spoken to Hayward.

"I have not spoken to him directly," he told Lauer. "Here's the reason. Because my experience is, when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO, he's gonna say all the right things to me. I'm not interested in words. I'm interested in actions."

Hayward will make his first appearance on Capitol Hill since the catastrophic Gulf oil spill when he testifies before a congressional committee on June 17. He is scheduled to appear at a House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee hearing on the disaster.

'Whose ass to kick'
Obama also defended himself against criticism about his handling the disaster, saying he had been in the Gulf a month ago before "most of these talking heads were even paying attention."

"I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar," the president added. "We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."

The White House said that Obama would return to the Gulf next Monday and Tuesday, touring damage in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — three states whose shores and economies are being affected by the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The trip will be Obama's fourth to the region since the deep-sea leak began April 20.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her committee chairmen to produce legislation by July 4 to cope with the spill and prevent future environmental disasters.

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the rig explosion, asked the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to do the same. In a letter Tuesday from the chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, the lawmakers asked the board to consider, among other things, the corporate safety culture of BP; what role cost-cutting may have been involved in well design and testing; BP's oversight of subcontractors, and whether any parallels could be drawn between the causes of the Deepwater Horizon blast and a 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people.

On the Senate side, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., requested that BP "provide full access to all video" related to the spill. The panel received 12 minutes of new high resolution video Tuesday from BP.

"Having an accurate flow rate from the spill is absolutely critical to establishing a complete scientific record, planning an adequate response, determining the appropriate fines and penalties under federal law, and ensuring a full assessment of damages," the senators said in the letter to BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay.

Citing reported discrepancies in flow rate estimates, they added, "scientists and other experts need unfiltered access to all data and video record, including a complete searchable record of all video files."

In the interview, Obama also acknowledged that the situation for residents of the Gulf was difficult, but said he was confident that the country and the region would recover.

"When you watch television or you go down to the Gulf and you see birds covered in oil, and you talk to fishermen who are on the verge of tears, big tough guys ... their livelihoods are being smothered by this oil, it gets you frustrated," he told Lauer.

"But it has not reduced my confidence that our trajectory is right. We've just got to keep on moving," he said, adding: "It's gonna be tough, but we're gonna get through it."

The president's remarks were part of a stepped-up White House effort to show Obama is actively engaged in dealing with the spill and to distance itself from the London-based oil giant, formerly known as British Petroleum. Polls have shown a majority of Americans believe Obama has handled the crisis poorly .

The administration has stopped using the same figures as BP any more for how much oil is flowing from the blown-out well and how much is being captured.

Collecting oil
BP said on Tuesday it had collected 14,800 barrels of oil from the leaking well on Monday, 33 percent higher than the amount collected on Sunday and the highest capture rate since it installed a new system last week to contain the spill.

The latest attempt involves a containment cap placed on top of the gushing pipe on the ocean floor. The total amount of oil collected over four days was about 42,500 barrels, BP said

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the top U.S. official overseeing the cleanup effort, said on Monday neither BP nor the government knew just how much oil was gushing out of the well. "That's the big unknown right now," he said.

BP has given conservative estimates of the oil flow that have been ridiculed by scientists and U.S. lawmakers. Even the government's much higher estimates of 12,000-19,000 barrels a day seemed on the low side after Allen said the company planned to double its collection of oil from the well to 20,000 barrels every day.

Allen said on Tuesday U.S. scientists would present revised estimates later this week or early next week.

BP said will get rid of some of the oil being recaptured from a spill by burning it off.

BP spokesman Max McGahan said the rig carrying the burner will be moved away from the main leak site so flames and heat do not endanger other vessels.

Another BP spokesman, Robert Wine, said the company will also boost capacity by bringing in a floating platform it believes can process most of the flow.

Meanwhile, over the past decade had found BP repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules.

The Post article, by nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica, said a series of accidents before the explosion on Deepwater Horizon meant BP faced a possible ban on new U.S. drilling leases and federal contracting, citing former Environmental Protection Agency officials.

"They are a recurring environmental criminal and they do not follow U.S. health safety and environmental policy," said Jeanne Pascal, a former EPA lawyer who led its BP investigations, told ProPublica.

In 1999, BP pleaded guilty to illegal dumping at an offshore drilling field in Alaska, the article reported. To avoid a contract cancellation with the federal government, the company agreed to a five-year probationary plan with the EPA.

Less than a year later, employees complained to an independent arbitrator that the company was letting equipment and critical safety systems languish at its Greater Prudhoe Bay drilling field, the article said.

Independent experts hired by BP identified systemic problems in maintenance and inspections. They warned BP that it faced a "fundamental culture of mistrust" by its workers.

The experts' report said that "unacceptable" maintenance backlogs ballooned as BP tried to sustain profits despite declining production, the ProPublica article said.

Hayward become chief executive in 2007 and has made commitments to reform the company.

Toby Odone, a company spokesman, told ProPublica that the notion that BP has ongoing problems addressing worker concerns was "essentially groundless."

He said under Hayward the company had worked to ensure there were "responsible operations at every BP operation."