Will BP Ever Get Everything Right?

BP (NYSE: BP  ) was a pariah among Gulf Coast residents and its Big Oil peers for months after last year's tragic Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the sinking of Transocean's (NYSE: RIG  ) Deepwater Horizon rig, and the gushing oil spill that followed.

However, as time passed, despite the essentially forced resignation of BP CEO Tony Hayward and the specter of BP having to ante up tens of billions of dollars for damages payments and fines, it began to appear that culpability for the disaster shouldn't sit solely on the company's shoulders. Now, with Japan's Mitsui & Co. having just agreed to pay nearly $1.1 billion for damages related to its 10% stake in Macondo, it's clearly becoming apparent that guilt among several parties in the well is becoming accepted wisdom.

The emergence of that new recognition has likely been propelled by analyses of the tragedy and its likely causes. In March, a report by Det Norske Veritas, international risk consultants retained by the U.S. Interior Department, tied the failure of the rig's huge blowout preventer to a design flaw. The massive piece of equipment had been manufactured by Cameron International (NYSE: CAM  ) .

Last month, a report wrapping up a U.S. Coast Guard study noted rig maintenance, training, and safety systems inadequacies at Transocean. The Coast Guard analysis followed an earlier spill commission study that hardly exonerated Halliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) for the quality of its cementing work on the well.

For months after the blowout, Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC  ) , with its 25% of the well, and Mitsui had ignored BP's invoices covering their share of the accident. Both maintained that gross negligence on BP's part absolved them of financial responsibility for the tragedy. But Mitsui clearly has read the flow of reports on the Macondo mess and has decided that the gross negligence claim is unlikely to hold water -- or oil. While the new agreement calls for the Japanese firm to pay about half the amount called for in its collective BP bills, can a similar conclusion by Anadarko be far behind?

So are BP's troubles fading away? Maybe not. The company's step forward has unfortunately been accompanied by another to the rear. According to Russian energy minister Sergei Shmatko, the company's agreed-to partnership with his country's oil giant, OAO Rosneft, which has been blocked by BP's Russian billionaire partners in the TNK-BP joint venture, is severely wounded -- or worse. It thus appears that its form must be altered significantly or BP will be replaced by another member of Big Oil that is long on offshore experience, such as Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) or France's Total (NYSE: TOT  ) .

I think you'll agree that BP is the Inspector Clouseau of Big Oil -- possessing an amazing ability to execute one pratfall after another. Without that ability, the company is cheap. But the tendency can't be ignored, and so, until it subsides, I suggest that Fools -- ideally using their personalized watchlist -- simply monitor the company carefully.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Chevron and Total. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2011, at 10:53 AM, buffalonate wrote:

    If everyone is down on BP it seems like a good time to buy. Eventually BP's reputation will improve and that will allow them access to more big projects. When oil dips again I am buying BP because in the longrun I like their chances.

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