BP's recent run of good fortune ended yesterday as the US government accused it of showing "a lack of business integrity" over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and temporarily banned it from pitching for new federal contracts.
In a decision with potentially far-reaching financial and reputational consequences, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has temporarily suspended BP from bidding for new oil and gas exploration licences, contracts to supply fuel to the Department of Defence and all other government business until it can prove "it meets federal business standards".
However, the suspension does not affect existing agreements between BP and the US government.
David Buik, of Cantor Index, said: "This is awful. It's temporary, but for how long? It could have massive repercussions on shareholders and on dividends."
Although Mr Buik and other analysts cannot yet assess the likely extent of the damage on BP, they agree that it at least represents a setback for the oil giant after a string of positive developments, and could deal a sizeable blow to its bottom line and reputation.
The EPA's decision came two weeks after BP admitted 14 counts of criminal misconduct as part of its record $4.5bn (£2.8bn) settlement with the US government over the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in April 2010, which killed 11 workers and spilled nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the sea.
The news came as a surprise to BP, whose general counsel, Rupert Bondy, told investors on the night of the settlement that the group had been given "no indication that any agency would move to suspend or debar us". In the same session, chief financial officer Brian Gilvary acknowledged that such a move would force BP to review the investment case for the US.
His comments underline how important the US is to BP, which accounts for a fifth of its daily global production and where the company has invested $52bn since 2007, more than in any other country. BP is the biggest fuel supplier to the US Department of Defence, which awarded it $1.35bn worth of contracts in 2011 alone.
"EPA is taking this action due to BP's lack of business integrity as demonstrated by the company's conduct with regard to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, explosion, oil spill and response, as reflected by the filing of criminal information," said an EPA spokesman.
A BP spokesman said: "BP has been in regular dialogue with the EPA and has already provided both a present responsibility statement of more than 100 pages and supplemental answers … The EPA has informed BP that it is preparing a proposed administrative agreement that, if agreed upon, would effectively resolve and lift this temporary suspension."
The announcement came hours after BP agreed to sell its stakes in several North Sea oil and gas fields to Abu Dhabi for $1.3bn.
David Cameron welcomed the transaction, a fortnight after he travelled to the Gulf in a bid to strengthen Britain's business ties with the region. "This is a vote of confidence in the UK economy and once again highlights the North Sea's position as a global energy hub," the Prime Minister said.
The deal with Abu Dhabi means BP has sold $37bn of assets in the past three years, bringing it within a whisker of the $38bn it plans to raise to pay costs incurred by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
In recent weeks BP has settled all federal criminal charges and claims by the US Securities and Exchange Commission relating to the Gulf of Mexico spill and agreed to sell its 50 per cent stake in its troubled Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, to Russia's Rosneft in a $26bn in cash and shares deal. That will leave it with nearly a fifth of Rosneft and paves the way for much greater collaboration in the future.
Shares in BP fell by 1.85p to 429.4p.
BP pair charged over Deepwater disaster 'scapegoats'
Lawyers for the two BP supervisors who were on the Deepwater Horizon rig when it exploded in 2010 and now face involuntary manslaughter charges suggested their clients are being scapegoated.
BP well-site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine are charged with 23 criminal counts.
But their lawyers said they would plead not guilty, and had been unfairly singled out for blame.
"There were multiple failures at multiple companies," Mr Kaluza's lawyer, Shaun Clarke, said, "so it is difficult for me to understand why the government decided to single out two guys working on a rig."
Bob Habits, who is representing Mr Vidrine, said: "It is almost inconceivable that any fair-minded person would blame this hardworking and diligent man for one of the most catastrophic events in the history of the oil business."
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