Spending billions on buybacks is a cautious move

Marion Dakers
THE concept of “having closure”, weirdly popular in American culture, is not something BP is all that familiar with.

But the oil major quite likes the idea. Its record $4.5bn (£2.84bn) penalty and guilty plea to felony charges went some way last week to clearing the way back from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and the depths of public anger.

BP has been at pains to mend relations since President Obama was asking “whose ass to kick” over the spill and deriding the firm he branded British Petroleum (an act of jingoism made worse by the still unquantified liabilities of US firms involved such as Transocean and Halliburton).

Regular readers will remember this newspaper’s BP in Crisis logo, wheeled out almost daily in 2010 for reports of frantic efforts to end the cascade of leaks and executive gaffes. BP will be happy to learn that the logo has long since vanished from the City A.M. servers.

But thousands of civil claimants lining up for their day in court with the oil firm remain enraged.

“They don’t fuel America, they fool America,” one fisherman said last week, telling the BBC that the Louisiana coastline remains a “dead zone” for shrimp fishing, his and many others’ livelihoods.

BP would be more than happy to settle the sprawling class action, due to be heard in February, which has created something of a cottage industry of local litigators and online claims sites for the victims who opted out of last year’s group settlement.

This lawsuit will also include complaints from local governments under the Clean Water Act, which at their most severe could total $21bn, if the firm is found to be “grossly negligent”. BP has said it was “no more than negligent”, and has set aside $3.5bn. It could take years of courtroom drama to find out which number was closer.

So talk of a multi-billion pound buyback before this case is closed will, unsurprisingly, not go down well Stateside.

But with the bulk of the Gulf spill’s enormous costs now known, BP has rightly got an eye on what comes next.

Its share price is still far below the pre-spill peaks of around £6.50, and the company is at risk of attracting hostile bid interest or even more hostile shareholder questions.

Its elaborate partner-hopping in Russia helps defend the firm from takeover advances and brings some of that so-called “closure” to its lovelorn association with AAR.

The tie-up with Rosneft looks likely to replace BP’s dividend stream from TNK-BP and lead to output in the Russian Arctic in the long-term.

Putting the resulting $12.3bn cash pile to work in the meantime to reassure shareholders, once it is clear those affected in the Gulf are going to be reimbursed, would suit the new post-spill BP’s more cautious stance.