White House says BP to pay Gulf fishermen

The White House says BP will have to pay for the lost income of Gulf Coast fishermen, even though federal law sets a limit of $75 million dollars on the oil companies' liability, above the cost of cleaning up the huge and growing spill from the Deep Horizon oil rig. In a White House briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said "BP is the responsible party. If local fishermen can't fish, that's an economic loss that BP's going to have to pay."

But with regional fishing suspended by a spill that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says could continue for months, Gibbs seemed to go beyond the requirements of the law and the promise of BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, who told ABC's Good Morning America his company is responsible "for the oil and for dealing with it and cleaning the situation up."

Gibbs said he would look into the requirement of the law, but to some lawmakers the requirement is unmistakably clear and equally unacceptable. Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Bill Nelson of Florida are pushing for a bill that would hike the economic damage liability limits to $10 billion. Nelson said of BP officials "They're not going to want to pay any more than what the law says they have to, which is why we can't let them off the hook."

Gibbs' comments came about an hour before BP's Hayward met with Salazar, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Company officials have said it could be three months before they cap the spill. Gibbs says the administration officials might not be able to get BP to go any faster but he said "We will keep our -- as Secretary Salazar said, our boot on the throat of B.P. to ensure that they're doing all that they -- all that is necessary while we do all that is humanly possible to deal with this incident."

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, named by the President to direct the response to the oil spill, talked with Gulf Coast fishermen over the weekend "about setting up a system for compensation claims" according to Gibbs. He said a law passed several years before the 1989 oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez insures "that companies that cause these type of accidents don't hand the taxpayers of this country a bill." That law, however, may not require BP to compensate fishermen on its own.

After the Exxon Valdez ran aground, Congress established a $1 billion to $1.6 billion fund by imposing a tax on oil companies. Since then, economic damages from oil spills have exceeded the $75 million dollar limit dozens of times. Damages from the current spill could be paid from this fund but they could also exceed it.

Wendell Goler serves as a senior White House and foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC), joining the network in 1996.