BP bounces back – but can it last?

Oil giant says it has turned the corner after 2010's disastrous Gulf of Mexico spill, yet a multi-billion civil claim could cost it dearly, reports Tom Bawden

BP is giving the distinct impression of a company that believes it has finally turned the corner after the fateful Gulf of Mexico oil spill turned the group upside down back in April 2010.

In a notice ahead of this Thursday's annual shareholders meeting, chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg declared: "2012 was a year of milestones for BP. From addressing uncertainty in the US and Russia to driving forward our strategy and performance, we have made substantial progress."

Chief executive Bob Dudley used very similar language at the company's results presentation in February, despite reporting a 19 per cent slump in profit for 2012. "Moving through 2013 we will deliver further operational milestones," the bullish New Yorker argued.

But has BP really turned a corner since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, leading to 11 deaths and gushing an estimated 4.9m barrels of oil into the sea in the following three months?

The FTSE 100 oil company lost more than half of its value in days immediately after the accident, although shares have regained some ground since then. However, at around 450p today they remain well below the 650p they were fetching before the incident and they are lower than they were at the start of 2012 .

The disaster dealt a monumental blow to BP's reputation, not to mention its balance sheet, while then chief executive Tony Hayward became America's public enemy No 1 after making the understandable – but highly tactless and naïve – statement that "I'd like my life back". After that, it was only a matter of time before he resigned, with current chief executive Dudley taking up the reins.

But Dudley arguably made things worse. Determined to make his mark, he hit the ground running, signing an exploration deal with Rosneft to produce oil and gas in the Russian Arctic.

The problem was that the terms of its troublesome TNK-BP joint venture in Russia – with the AAR consortium of oligarchs – obliged BP to give the venture first refusal on any opportunities in the country. This put further strain on BP's already fraught relationship with AAR, which led to court action and the collapse of the deal in May 2011.

The incident hit the new chief executive's reputation making him look callow and complacent for not ensuring AAR's co-operation before the deal was announced – an oversight which seemed all the more surprising given that Dudley was once the head of TNK-BP, until he was forced out of Russia in 2008 citing harassment from the authorities.

But he has bounced back and has recently pulled off what looks to be a significant coup, with a deal that severed BP's ties with TNK-BP and put it back into bed with Rosneft in one fell swoop.

BP and AAR each agreed to sell their half of the joint venture to Rosneft, Russia's state-owned oil giant. The deal – finalised last month –handed BP $12.5bn (£8.3bn) in cash and an 18.75 per cent stake in Rosneft (on top of its existing 1 per cent shareholding) making it the second biggest shareholder in the Russian company, after the Kremlin.

BP's new relationship with Rosneft will see the pair exploring for oil in the potentially lucrative, but still largely unproven, Russian Arctic as well as in other countries that might otherwise be closed to the UK, such as oil-rich Venezuela.

The group's other recent milestone came in November when BP reached a $4.53bn settlement with American authorities over the Gulf of Mexico. This amounted to the biggest criminal penalty in US legal history and saw BP plead guilty to 14 counts of criminal misconduct.

However, it was welcomed by shareholders because it removed a key uncertainty surrounding the legal cost of the spill, resolving all federal criminal charges and claims by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Crucially, however, BP was unable to settle with the government on the monster civil case that kicked off in New Orleans, which could drag on for months and whose outcome is far from certain.

"It has turned a corner, yes, and realised how big the maze really is," said Liberum Capital analyst Andrew Whittock. "It's good that BP's done the deal in Russia, but the US court case... who knows? And what happens beyond that? Why should people invest in BP rather than Shell, Exxon and Total? Is it better positioned than them in gas? No. Shale? No. East Africa? No. Australasia? No."

Mr Whittock added that BP does have a "strong position" in the Middle East and decent businesses in the North Sea, Caspian Sea, Trinidad and Angola.

Iain Pyle, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein, added: "BP is certainly in the process of turning the corner, but it's still too early to say that it has. By the end of the year, we should have a clearer idea."

BP has transformed itself since the spill, selling $50bn worth of assets, including its TNK-BP stake and the Texas refinery that suffered a fire and explosion in 2005. It now has just half the number of oil and gas platforms, half its pipelines and two-thirds the number of wells. But it has only lost 9 per cent of production and 10 per cent of reserves in the process – implying substantially higher profit margins in future.

Add to that a dividend up from nothing after the spill to 9 cents a share for the fourth quarter of 2012, and last month's announcement of an $8bn buyback, and investors have some reason for cheer.

But the great unknown of the US civil court case remains. The worst case scenario – a verdict of gross negligence – could see BP's legal bill coming to $50bn more than the $42.2bn it has budgeted for. That would leave BP with a further major corner to turn, before it even finishes turning this one.

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