By HELENE COOPER and JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama summoned Americans on Tuesday to a “national mission” to move away from reliance on oil and develop alternative sources of energy, casting the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an imperative for Congress to act quickly to overcome “a lack of political courage and candor.”
Speaking to a national television audience for the first time from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama also promised a long-term plan to make sure that the gulf states suffering from the oil spill are made whole again. He said he was appointing Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy and the former governor of Mississippi, to develop a Gulf Coast restoration plan in cooperation with states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, conservationists and gulf residents.
Even as Mr. Obama was preparing his speech, the government on Tuesday released a new estimate of the amount of oil flowing from the well. It said as much as 60,000 barrels could be spewing into the Gulf of Mexico each day, a sharp increase over the estimate last week of 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day.
The new estimate, reflecting the increased oil flow that began after a pipe was deliberately cut to help capture some of the oil coming from the well, continues a pattern in which every new estimate has been sharply higher than the one before. With the broken well’s owner, BP, capturing roughly 15,000 barrels a day, the new estimate suggests that as much as 45,000 barrels a day is escaping into the gulf, punctuating the scale of the substantive and political problems facing Mr. Obama.
“Today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude,” Mr. Obama said. “We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”
Mr. Obama’s 18-minute address, delivered at his desk, took place in an atmosphere far different from the crowded campaign rallies and international university halls where he has produced some of his most soaring speeches. This time, Mr. Obama, wearing a dark blue suit and light blue tie, struck a solemn but hopeful tone, invoked military terminology to create a sense of urgency around his response to the crisis, and spoke of the American ingenuity he said was needed to help the country rein in its reliance on oil.
He said he had authorized the use of 17,000 National Guard members to help with the cleanup effort, but only a small number have actually been dispatched by the governors in the region even though Mr. Obama has said that BP will pick up the cost. He also continued to strike an adversarial tone toward BP.
“We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes,” he said. “We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever is necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”
Seizing on the widening calamity in the Gulf of Mexico to push for legislation he has advocated since his campaign, Mr. Obama said he was willing to look at approaches from Republicans as well as Democrats, including raising efficiency standards for buildings as well as cars and trucks.
He said progress had been blocked time and time again by “oil industry lobbyists,” and he suggested that achieving energy independence was an issue of national security, saying the time has come for the United States to “seize control of our own destiny.”
But, he warned: “The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.”
Mr. Obama delivered the speech the evening before he was to meet at the White House with the top executives of BP to demand that they agree to establish an independently administered escrow account of billions of dollars to pay claims stemming from the disaster.
He said he would inform the chairman of BP’s board, Carl-Henric Svanberg, “that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.”
Lawyers at the White House and for BP have been negotiating for days about an escrow account. While Mr. Obama has not put a figure on the account, Senate Democrats have called for $20 billion.
BP released a statement after Mr. Obama’s address. “We share the president’s goal of shutting off the well as quickly as possible, cleaning up the oil and mitigating the impact on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast,” the company said from London. “We look forward to meeting with President Obama tomorrow for a constructive discussion about how best to achieve these mutual goals.”
Mr. Obama also moved to address one of the weaknesses exposed by the spill, lax oversight from the agency with the most direct authority to regulate offshore drilling, the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service. He said he had named Michael R. Bromwich, a former Justice Department prosecutor and inspector general, to restructure the agency to make it a tougher regulator.
Administration officials said the speech marked “an inflection point” in the nearly two-month-old crisis: the end of a phase in which BP tried and failed to stop the leak using the quickest available options, and the beginning of the “new reality” that plugging the leak could take months and the cleanup months or even years past that.
The new estimate for the amount of oil spewing from the well is far above the figure of 5,000 barrels a day that the government and BP clung to for weeks after the spill began. It reflects a possible increase in the flow rate that occurred after BP cut an underwater pipe called a riser on June 3 to install a new device to capture part of the oil.
It is based on new information, including high-resolution video made after the riser cut, and on pressure readings taken by a device that was inserted this week into the equipment at the sea floor. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, was personally involved in using those pressure readings to help make the latest calculation.
“This estimate brings together several scientific methodologies and the latest information from the sea floor, and represents a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP’s well,” Secretary Chu said in a statement. “As we continue to collect additional data and refine these estimates, it is important to realize that the numbers can change.”
The company has proven in recent days that it can capture roughly 15,000 barrels of oil a day, though the operation was interrupted briefly on Tuesday by a small fire after the Discoverer Enterprise drilling ship was apparently struck by lightning.
BP has outlined plans to deploy new equipment so that it can capture a minimum of 40,000 barrels a day by the end of June, and a minimum of 60,000 barrels a day by mid-July.
If the new range of flow estimates proves correct, and if BP is ultimately found guilty of gross negligence in actions it took that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that would mean the company could be assessed fines of up to $258 million a day. Those fines could come on top of payments for cleanup costs and economic damage to Gulf Coast businesses.
Fearful that the spill could ultimately cost BP tens of billions of dollars, investors have driven the company’s market valuation down by 48 percent since the spill began, erasing $91 billion of shareholder value. BP shares rose more than 2 percent during regular trading on Tuesday, but then gave up all that gain and more in after-hours trading.
Mr. Obama has said all along that BP will pay for everything. People close to BP said that as asset-rich as the global oil giant is, its holdings are not so liquid that it can instantly set aside as many billions of dollars as the White House and leaders in Congress are seeking. Also being worked out are the terms by which BP would have to replenish the fund as it is drawn down.
BP officials are adamant that the company should not be liable for the lost wages of oil workers laid off because of the six-month moratorium that the Obama administration imposed on deepwater offshore drilling after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other administration officials repeatedly have cited idled oil workers as among those who could press claims.