America will be fighting the Gulf of Mexico oil spill “epidemic” for months, even years, US President Barack Obama warned today, as he accused oil giant BP of “recklessness”.

In the first Oval Office address of his presidency, Mr Obama said he would order BP to set up an independent claims fund and swore not to rest until it had paid for the damage to lives, businesses and shorelines.

Mr Obama, who is determined to hold BP accountable for the largest environmental disaster in US history, said it was time to embrace a ”clean energy future”.

Eleven workers died in the deep-sea explosion on April 20, which set the oil spill in motion.

Pledging to do “whatever’s necessary” to return the Gulf to its natural state, Mr Obama also urged the world’s biggest consumer of fossil fuels to respond to the disaster by accelerating its transformation to renewable clean energy.

“We cannot consign our children to [an oil-dependent] future,” Mr Obama said. “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.

“Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

The President warned that rehabilitation of the Gulf would take years given the nature of the disaster.

“Unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it is not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.

“But make no mistake: we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”

Mr Obama, who has been fighting public perception that his administration was slow to respond to the catastrophe, said he was committed to a massive clean-up and compensation operation. Plans were unveiled this week for a special fund for compensating victims into which BP could ultimately pay $US20 billion.

He repeated that the National Commission investigating the leak would determine its cause and recommend measures to prevent a recurrence.

It was the first time the President has used the Oval Office to address the nation, a practice resorted to by presidents typically in times of war or national distress.

Former president George Bush addressed the nation from the White House on the evening of the September 11, terrorist attacks. The last time a president chose an Oval Office address to talk about energy issues was in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter outlined a range of measures to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, a goal that failed miserably.

Oil has gushed freely from the BP-operated oil well since April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon rig caught fire after an explosion, and sank two days later.

It has flowed into the sea at an estimated rate of between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day, paralysing the fishing and tourism industries of Louisiana and disrupting communities along several hundred kilometres of coastline through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

“The oil spill is not the last crisis America will face,” Mr Obama said. “This nation has known hard times before and we will surely know them again.

“What sees us through – what has always seen us through – is our strength, our resilience, and our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it.

“Tonight, we pray for that courage. We pray for the people of the Gulf. And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.”

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