BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was determined to stay on message following a four-hour meeting at the White House with President Obama and a host of aides and cabinet secretaries.
Svanberg delivered a precise and lawyerly statement to reporters, reading from a handful of note cards. But when he went off script in response to a few questions, the Swede uttered a phrase that overshadowed everything else.
He referred to people affected by the oil spill as “small people,” in a damaging slip of the tongue that reinforced the impression many people have of oil companies as arrogant and out of touch with all but the pursuit of higher profits at any cost.
It followed on the heels of BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward’s complaint in May that he wanted his “life back.”
Svanberg, with Hayward and two other BP executives standing behind him, took only four questions from the enormous crowd of reporters that had gathered outside the West Wing — some of them waiting for several hours.
When asked how much time he had spent with Obama, Svanberg talked about the president’s strong feelings about the impact of the oil spill on the people of the Gulf Coast.
“He is frustrated because he cares about the small people and we care about the small people,” Svanberg said in accented English. (WATCH THE REMARKS)
“I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people,” he said.
A BP spokesman told The Daily Caller that Svanberg’s choice of words was “a bit of a language issue” caused by his lack of expertise with the English language.
“The words weren’t quite right. Local people, local businesses is what he meant by that,” said the BP spokesman, who did not want to be identified. “He just means the small businesses, the local people, the local people affected.”
Svanberg’s comments came after Obama announced that BP had agreed to pay $20 billion over the next four years into an escrow account to be paid out to those affected by the spill, which has now been spewing oil into the Gulf for almost two months.
Obama said the $20 billion figure was “not a cap.”
“The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them. BP has publicly pledged to make good on the claims that it owes to the people in the Gulf, and so the agreement we reached sets up a financial and legal framework to do it,” Obama said.
Svanberg’s remarks showed that BP is concerned about paying out to people who they believe do not have “legitimate” or “proper” claims. The president used the term “legitimate claims” once, but when talking about the $20 billion escrow account spoke only of “claims.”
Svanberg stressed the importance of a fair claims process “to ensure that the right people will get the right money at the right time.”
A senior BP executive who was in the meeting said that the company officials “discussed both before and during the meeting the importance to the American people and to particularly the people of the Gulf, and the businesses and industries there, of BP remaining a strong and viable company.”
“We know what it looks like when a company is driven into bankruptcy,” the BP official said. “The claimants that come first are the creditors, and then come the employees and then come environmental claims and then come the likes of shrimpers. This would not be a good result for anyone.”
“So it is important that policymakers understand that it is helpful and indeed critical for BP to remain a strong and viable company in order to live up to those obligations. I do not believe that the administration needs persuasion of this.”
Carol Browner, the head of the White House office of energy and climate change, would not say that the government would force BP to add more money to the escrow account if the $20 billion ran out.
“You could go straight to BP and say, ‘I have this claim,'” Browner said. “You have all of your rights to go right back to BP.”
The escrow account will be run by Ken Feinberg, an attorney with a long history of claims adjudication who presided over awards to families of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Feinberg is currently in charge of deciding whether chief executives of large Wall Street firms receive too much compensation, a post known by the White House as the “pay czar.”
Some conservatives criticized the choice of Feinberg, who has functioned as a member of the Obama administration in his capacity as the “pay czar.”
“The problem with Ken Feinberg, who is a fine person and I think a fair person, he’s a political appointee of the Obama administration,” said Tony Fratto, a former Bush administration official who said he supported the idea of an escrow account but simply thought the administrator should be more removed from the White House than Feinberg.
“It’s clear hat the Obama administration has a bias towards BP paying even if it goes beyond legitimate claims. They have an interest in BP just paying a lot of money. They have no fiduciary interest over the fund,” Fratto said.
A White House official insisted that Feinberg was independent of the administration and was a private sector worker on contract with the government, contesting the idea that he was in any way a government official.