By Stephen Collinson
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama rounded on his critics Tuesday as US officials warned the Gulf Coast's fragile economy and environment would take years to recover from the worst oil spill in US history.
In an interview to air later Tuesday on NBC television's "Today" show, Obama followed criticism that his talk was not tough enough by saying he spoke with fishermen and experts on the catastrophic spill not for academic reasons, but "so I know whose ass to kick."
Though Obama has traveled to the Gulf three times since the April 20 rig explosion, some critics charge he has been slow to lead.
But the president insisted that on his first visit a month ago, he warned "about what a potential crisis this could be," according to excerpts of the interview.
"I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answer so I know whose ass to kick," Obama said as he bared a spot of raw emotion over the disaster.
As BP increased the amount of oil it is capturing from a broken Gulf of Mexico wellhead thanks to a containment cap, the US administration pressured the British energy giant to step up compensation payouts to residents whose livelihoods have been shattered.
"What is clear is that the economic impact of this disaster is going to be substantial, and it is going to be ongoing," Obama said Monday after meeting with top officials in the latest attempt to show his administration is on top of the crisis.
His assessment wasechoed by his point man on the spill, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.
"Dealing with the oil spill on the surface will go on for a couple of months," Allen said about the slick, which has broken into thousands of ribbons threatening shores from Louisiana to Florida.
"Long-term issues of restoring environments and habitats and stuff will be years," he added, as US television aired more heart-rending footage of sea birds coated in oily goop and shots of more oil coming ashore.
Allen said BP had succeeded in capturing 11,000 barrels of oil from the containment cap, a mile (1,600 meters) below the sea in a 24-hour period that ended early Monday, and planned to soon boost production to 20,000 barrels.
A top company official said BP has collected a total of 28,000 barrels of oil from the ruptured well. "This is an encouraging step," BP senior vice president Kent Wells told a press briefing.
But Allen said it remained unclear just how much oil was escaping from the ruptured wellhead, and what proportion of the escaping crude was being captured since the blast that ripped through the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling platform.
Government models estimate the oil's flow rate at between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels a day, meaning that only a portion of the crude is likely being captured so far.
Wells said a more durable "direct connect" containment measure would be installed by mid-June to increase the amount of oil and gas that can be captured from the well.
The company said it had spent at least 1.25 billion dollars on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as it pursues efforts to contain the leak.
As part of a previous pledge to fund six berms in the Louisiana barrier islands project, at a cost of 360 million dollars, BP announced it would make an immediate payment of 60 million dollars to the state of Louisiana.
And the firm is looking at hurricane-resistant methods for siphoning up oil in the event that a major storm strikes before relief wells are due to be completed in mid-August, officials said.
The latest poll carried out by ABC News/Washington Post found that 69 percent of people would give the government as negative rating for its handling of the crisis. BP scored an 81 percent negative rating.
The oil has forced the closure of valuable fishing grounds, blighting the livelihoods of many residents in an area also heavily dependent on tourism.
Almost 600 birds have been found dead by wildlife rescue workers in coastal states - including Alabama, Florida and Mississippi - as well as for the first time in Texas, while another 223 were found alive covered in oil.