BP directors in crunch meeting over dividend

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The Independent Online

BP directors face making a crucial decision about what to do with the oil giant's dividend tomorrow after US president Barack Obama sought to smooth over transatlantic tensions around the firm's disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

BP's board will meet to discuss the option of suspending the latest tranche of a £7 billion payout to shareholders as a consequence of the environmental catastrophe.

After mounting British concerns over Mr Obama's scathing criticism of the firm, the US leader spoke to Prime Minister David Cameron during a 30-minute phone call yesterday and told him his comments were "nothing to do with national identity".

The two men also reaffirmed their belief in "the unique strength of the US-UK relationship", and Mr Obama made clear that he recognised that BP was a global company, according to a statement released by 10 Downing Street.

Mr Cameron expressed his "sadness" at the continuing human and environmental damage being done by the tens of thousands of gallons of oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon rig, following a catastrophic blow-out on April 20.

And the Prime Minister and president agreed that BP should continue to ensure that "all sensible and reasonable" steps are taken to deal with the disaster.

Downing Street characterised yesterday's conversation as "warm and constructive" and said that Mr Cameron had stressed the importance of BP to the economy not only of the UK but also the US and other countries.

The oil giant has come under fierce US pressure to postpone its latest dividend payment so bosses can concentrate on cleaning up the oil spill.

But such a move could deal a big blow to pensions in the UK, as BP is estimated to account for £1 in every £7 of dividends paid to British shareholders.

BP was yesterday ordered by the US Coast Guard to step up its efforts to stop oil gushing into the sea off the coast of Louisiana.

In a letter to the company, the coastguard's Rear Admiral James Watson said: "BP must identify in the next 48 hours additional leak containment capacity that could be operationalised and expedited."

Rear Adm Watson did not specify what sanctions might be triggered if BP failed to meet his demand.

Mr Obama has come under fire in the UK over perceptions that his outspoken attacks on a company he refers to as "British Petroleum" had an anti-British tone which could harm relations between the countries.

Senior figures in the City as well as London mayor Boris Johnson have urged the PM to come to the defence of BP amid fears that Mr Obama's comments were driving down its share price and putting British pensions at risk.

Briefing the press on yesterday's conversation, Downing Street said: "The Prime Minister expressed his sadness at the ongoing human and environmental catastrophe in Louisiana.

"The president and Prime Minister agreed that BP should continue - as they have pledged - to work intensively to ensure that all sensible and reasonable steps are taken as rapidly as practicable to deal with the consequences of this catastrophe.

"President Obama said to the Prime Minister that his unequivocal view was that BP was a multinational global company and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity.

"The Prime Minister stressed the economic importance of BP to the UK, US and other countries. The president made clear that he had no interest in undermining BP's value.

"The president and Prime Minister reaffirmed their confidence in the unique strength of the US-UK relationship."

A BP spokesman said of tomorrow's board meeting on the dividend payment: "No decision has been made on it, we are looking at options."

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