WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to ease transatlantic tensions over BP Plc yesterday and both men reaffirmed the much-vaunted “special relationship” between their countries.
Cameron said he understood American public anger over BP’s role in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and tried to defuse U.S. lawmakers’ concerns that the oil giant may have influenced the release of the Lockerbie bomber from a Scottish prison last year.
But Cameron, under pressure at home to stand up for the British energy giant against the bashing it has faced in the United States, also insisted it was in U.S. and British interests for the company to remain strong and stable.
Obama, whose approval ratings have been undercut by public outrage over the spill, avoided the tough language he has often used against BP over its handling of the Gulf disaster and played down the simmering controversy over the Lockerbie case.
“I completely understand the anger that exists right across America. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophe,” Cameron told reporters as he stood side-by-side with Obama at a White House news conference. “It is BP’s role to cap the leak, clean up the mess and pay appropriate compensation.”
But he cautioned, “Let us not confuse the oil spill with the Libyan bomber.”
Cameron insisted BP had no role in the release of the Abdel Basset al-Megrahi by Scottish authorities, which he opposed at the time, and promised his government would cooperate with any U.S. congressional hearings into the case.
Obama said he was confident that the British government would cooperate to make sure all the facts are known about the case.
In an apparent bid to assuage U.S. concerns, Cameron said he was asking his cabinet secretary to review whether any more documents in the case could be made public. But he rejected U.S. lawmakers’ demands for a full inquiry.
Though problems swirling around BP have threatened to complicate U.S.-British ties, Obama joined Cameron — on his first U.S. trip since taking office in May — in lauding the historic alliance between their countries.
The two leaders presented a united front on the war in Afghanistan, sanctions against Iran and efforts toward Middle East peace. But they appeared to paper over differences over their government’s approaches to global economic recovery.
Aides said the meeting was aimed at building on a personal rapport they struck up at last month’s Group of 20 summit in Canada.
But BP, and its role in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, loomed large.
With an eye to British pensioners and other investors at home, Cameron had pledged to defend the embattled oil firm in Washington. “It is in the interest of both our countries that it remains a strong and stable company,” he said.
Already under fire over the Gulf disaster, BP faces demands from U.S. lawmakers for an official British inquiry into whether it had a hand in the release of the Libyan convicted in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Cameron, who was opposition leader at the time of the release, planned to meet last night with the four U.S. senators from New York and New Jersey.
BP has confirmed it lobbied the British government in 2007 over a prisoner transfer deal with Libya for fear its commercial interests in the country Libya were being damaged.
But the company said it was not involved in talks on the release of Megrahi, sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of 270 people, including 189 Americans.