BP is still standing, but the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has changed the company forever. It could have been far worse.
In June, some City analysts doubted whether BP could survive the crisis. Shares had plunged by more than half. Within the space of a few weeks, the official estimate of the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf had increased from 5,000 barrels to anywhere between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day. The company’s repeated attempts to stop the flow had failed and August – the earliest the first relief well could be drilled – seemed a lifetime away.
The chief executive, Tony Hayward – who has since resigned – and BP’s chairman were summoned to meet Barack Obama at the White House. They were forced to scrap plans to pay shareholders a dividend and instead to set aside $20bn to pay damages to those affected.
While the battle to stop the leak is over, the legal battle is only just beginning. BP will fight tooth and nail against accusations that it was grossly negligent. If the charge stands, it faces fines of up to $21bn. BP wouldn’t be able to pass off other costs, such as the clean-up and damages, to its partners. With investigations by the Department of Justice, among others, only just beginning, US lawyers say it will take years to decide who was to blame for the accident – and the full level of BP’s liabilities.
The company is already selling $30bn worth of assets to meet its costs from the spill so far. What executives are labelling “Future BP” will be a much smaller company shorn of much of its presence around the world. If investigations decide it has been grossly negligent, many more asset sales will be necessary.
BP argues that whatever happens, it is in the US’s interests that it survives so it can meet all its liabilities. But it may be some time before it can afford to resume paying bumper dividends, which normally make up more than one-tenth of all payouts by UK companies.