BP's rivals rally round as industry faces turning point

The oil giant's competitors just want to help – despite feverish talk of a takeover. But whatever happens, the huge spill spells profound change. By Mark Leftly

Usually they are rivals, but this weekend nearly 90 organisations are in Houston working around the clock to help BP stem the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The catastrophe, which analysts at Credit Suisse have estimated could cost BP up to $37bn, has led to feverish speculation that the grand old oil major could soon be a takeover target.

Yet technical experts from oft-speculated potential buyers ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron are among those trying to prevent the escalation of the costs and environmental consequences of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

That BP could come into play as an acquisition target becomes ever more possible as the share price collapses, but the idea that a Western major is actually priming itself for a bid is really quite far-fetched. BP's rivals are more concerned about the wider impact for the oil and gas industry than they are about shelling out for a business empire.

The costs of oil projects are set to soar as governments insist on tougher environmental safety standards in the wake of the spill. Already the Kazakhstan energy ministry has forced Shell to tighten up plans at its Kashagan development, meaning that the current $136bn budget is likely to be busted.

"It's clear that we need the consortium members to take seriously the signals from the Gulf of Mexico event," Kazakhstan's minister of oil and gas, Sauat Mynbayev, was quoted when warning Shell last week. What this tragedy – which killed 11 men after pressure a mile beneath the seabed finally broke through a well – will lead to is a fundamental reconstruction of both BP and the entire industry.

Oil and gas bankers who have worked on some of the biggest acquisitions of recent years say that BP's suitors will rule out any immediate move. "Everybody at this stage just wants to be seen as helping," explains one banker. "If it came out that anyone was talking to advisers at this stage [about a takeover] there would be public outrage."

In other circumstances, a one-third dive in BP's share price would result in bankers pitching immediately and incessantly at chief executive Tony Hayward over potential defence strategies.

"The BP attitude is 'we don't think we're vulnerable to a takeover, we're totally focused on what we're doing to control the spill, so leave us alone'," says an industry source.

However, BP's regular adviser, Goldman Sachs, is rumoured to be dusting off the company's defence playbook. Should a bid materialise from China, which would be far less sensitive to the public relations implications of bidding for BP during the greatest ecological disaster of the century so far, the company will need a far bigger defence team.

The Goldman link is a result of the previous management regime, as both former chief executive Lord Browne and former chairman Peter Sutherland held senior positions at the bank at the same time.

And that historic link presents its own difficulties. Already President Barack Obama has taken to referring to BP as "British Petroleum", simultaneously distancing his administration from an overseas company and using the full name in the manner of a teacher disciplining an errant schoolboy.

Tying together two of the most unpopular companies in the US would only reinforce the president's message. In a US poll last month, Goldman had but a 4 per cent approval rating, partly a result of the Securities and Exchange Commission's recent charge of fraud against the bank – allegedly committed in the build-up to the financial crisis.

As the pressure builds on BP, so the situation becomes almost unbearable for Hayward. Already he has committed the huge public-relations error of declaring that he would "like my life back", having based himself in the US since the explosion on 20 April.

His position is considered very much in the balance, but industry insiders believe that Hayward is safe in the short-term as he has, at times, successfully reassured investors.

For example, US senators Chuck Schumer and Ron Wyden hurt the stock price by calling on BP to suspend its dividend, potentially devastating to UK pension funds that get one-in-six pounds of all such payouts from the company. Hayward announced that the dividend, arguably BP's greatest market strength, will hold firm.

Also to his advantage is perception. Firing the top man in the middle of a crisis would only spook the markets when they have just regained a little faith in the company – shares rose 4 per cent on news that BP had temporarily lowered a cap on to the leaking well.

"Why would the board fire him now?" says a source. "They need him to take the rap and sort it out."

A little further into the future and Hayward is in trouble. Bookie William Hill says Hayward is odds-on to be out of the job by the end of the year.

A former oil chief executive says: "I'm not a great fan of the way that this is playing out for Tony. He's a very open and candid guy and has boyish looks that don't give him gravitas. Those are probably attributes that you don't need in these circumstances."

He is also critical of the BP chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, who has kept an astonishingly low profile during the crisis. "Although Tony hasn't covered himself in glory, Svanberg has been laughable. You need your chairman to step in and talk to the newspapers while the CEO gets on with the task of sorting out the problem."

While it seems inevitable that there will be regime change, a new management team could find itself in a relatively strong position as a result of fundamental changes that the industry will now go through.

Perversely, majors might reassert their market dominance. President Obama has announced a six-month moratorium on costly, potentially dangerous deepwater drilling in the area while the clean-up continues.

This could cost up to 6,000 jobs in Louisiana and will hit the pockets of the oil majors. But the likes of BP and Shell can afford the hit. "BP can probably handle $20bn to $40bn," says an industry expert.

"All those medium-sized players will look at the spill and have to admit that they would go into bankruptcy if they suffered a similar event."

The result could be that smaller companies – that don't have market values in excess of $100bn – might pull out of deepwater activities. Only the big boys of the industry would remain in these lucrative waters.

Also, the majors might take many key operations back in-house as contractors grow concerned over potential liabilities. For example, Transocean supplied the Horizon rig and hired the contractors on the project.

This would pass more of the risk on to industry giants, but also give them the bulk of the rewards. With so few companies in this part of the market, consolidation would become even more difficult as there would be more competition issues.

BP looks likely to retain its independence, though its reputation will take a long time to restore. However, rehabilitation can be achieved. Twenty-one years on from Exxon Valdez and Exxon is still one of the world's biggest oil companies.

But this is likely to come at the price of the heads of the top executives and a total realignment of the oil industry.

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