Nearly two months into the environmental disaster triggered by BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama is making his first-ever address from the Oval Office tonight in an effort to convince Americans that the government is doing enough to protect coastal areas and the livelihoods of residents threatened by the crisis.

This is a familiar move for him — as he loses control of a debate, he steps up with a big speech in an effort to reframe the issue in his favor. But fighting a 24/7 barrage of TV news images of tar balls washing up on beaches and oil-soaked wildlife, he's going to need more than words this time. He is expected to announce tough new steps to assert federal control over the cleanup and to ensure BP's financial responsibility, but no matter how tough he talks tonight, his speech will be a failure if he doesn't also use this crisis as an opportunity to remind Americans of the destructive consequences of our dependence on oil and the inevitable risks that carries.


During his fourth visit to the region on Monday, the president met with Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana to assure them that, in addition to making BP pay for the costs of cleanup, the federal government would turn up the heat on the company to speed the oil recovery effort and reimburse local businesses and individuals for their losses. He also took the opportunity to urge tourists to visit the area's beaches in a bid to rally its faltering tourist industry.

Even before that, the president had already called on BP to use profits it had planned to pay out as shareholder dividends to compensate local businesses and residents for lost income from the spill. Today, he's set to meet for the first time face-to-face with top BP officials at the White House and demand the company set up an independently administered fund for reimbursing victims of the spill — in effect not only telling them how to allocate company profits but attempting to take some of the compensation decisions out of their hands. He is expected to give an ultimatum: Either put up $20 billion voluntarily, or I will force you to.

While there's some precedent for establishing government-sanctioned funds to cover claims by victims of environmental disasters caused by private companies — in the 1980s the government passed Superfund legislation to create a pool of money to pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites — exactly how such a proposal would work in the present case is unclear. Experts are still examining how the fund would be supervised and who would oversee claims payments, but Mr. Obama clearly is aware of concerns the company might declare bankruptcy to avoid compensating victims.

But he needs to use the occasion of tonight's speech to do more. Deep-water offshore drilling is inherently a risky business, and as long as we're compelled to attempt it, accidents are inevitable. President Obama needs to rally the nation around a plan to reduce our dependence not just on foreign oil, or offshore oil, but on fossil fuels in general. This spill is simply a live-streamed-to-the-web reminder of just how bad our addiction is environmentally, politically and economically.

It's striking that even as the country has been transfixed by the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, officials and residents of the areas most affected by the spill remain the staunchest proponents of expanded offshore drilling. Despite the immense damage done to their coast regions, Govs. Barbour and Jindal, both Republicans, still seem to think the only thing worse than an uncontrollable oil leak a mile under the surface of the gulf is a halt to drilling there, even a temporary one.

That makes no sense, and Mr. Obama needs to point out the obvious contradiction of wanting to have it both ways: minimal federal regulation over where and how offshore drilling leases are approved — until something goes wrong. Then it's all the federal government's fault for not doing enough to protect citizens from the catastrophe that follows.

Mr. Obama hasn't been nearly forceful enough when it comes to talking straight to the American people about the need to kick our addiction to oil and begin intensively developing alternative energy sources to fuel the nation's growth. It's worth noting that the $20 billion Mr. Obama is pressing BP to set aside for cleaning up the spill is more than the government dedicated in the 2009 stimulus bill to incentives for developing clean, renewable energy. Climate and energy bills have languished in Congress for months in fruitless debates over cap-and-trade proposals and whether the danger of global warming is real (it is). No one has had the courage to come right out and say the nation's current energy policies are unsustainable. Now Mr. Obama has a chance to use the present crisis to move the nation forward on both fronts, and he should make the most of it.