For BP plc, the Long Climb Back to Health Continues

BP has registered strong progress in the years since the Gulf of Mexico spill. While it's still being dragged down by legal costs, its core business is showing signs of recovery.

Feb 10, 2014 at 12:31PM

It was fairly obvious that integrated energy major BP plc (NYSE:BP) would display ugly results when it reported its fiscal fourth-quarter and full-year results. After all, BP remains severely affected by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Even nearly four years after the oil spill, BP struggles to overcome the financial hardship brought on by the incident. Since the April 2010 spill, BP embarked on a path of selling assets and raising cash, and as a result, is now a much smaller and focused company.

Not surprisingly, 2013 amounted to a year of gradual progress and financial restraint for BP. The company had some very important things to say about what's in store in 2014 in its fourth-quarter and full-year review. Here are the specific items BP investors should keep in mind going forward, as BP continues on its long road back to health.

A slimmed-down BP
It goes without saying that the ongoing civil trial represents a major consideration for investors. To date, BP has paid $42.7 billion in total damages stemming from the Gulf of Mexico spill.Further penalties are likely once the civil trial is resolved, and how much more BP will pay is entirely dependent on whether it is found grossly negligent.

BP faces up to $18 billion in penalties if found guilty of gross negligence and if 4.2 million barrels spilled into the Gulf. If BP is not found guilty of gross negligence and its assertion that a lower amount of oil spilled is upheld, the tab will be closer to $3 billion.

To prepare itself, BP resolved to shed assets it deems non-critical to its future. Last year, BP fully continued with this, as it divested $17.1 billion of assets during 2013. Going forward, expect further asset sales. BP expects to generate an additional $10 billion worth of divestments by the end of 2015.

Proceeds to fund cash returns to shareholders
It's important to note BP's true value proposition to investors, which is the hefty level of cash returns to shareholders. With such huge amounts of money being raised from asset sales, management stated its intention is to use the proceeds for share repurchases and a dividend yield that places it near the top of its industry.

BP bought back $5.5 billion of its own shares and paid $5.4 billion in dividends last year, which is a much more equitable split between share repurchases and dividend payments than ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). ExxonMobil spent $15 billion on share buybacks last year and paid approximately $11 billion in dividends.

Significant challenges persist, but progress is being made
Putting the issues of asset sales and financial penalties aside, BP's core underlying business performed well last year. While its earnings per share figure was negatively affected by the ongoing legal costs, BP actually increased operating cash flow by 10% last year. This provides a clearer view into the company's core performance, since earnings per share were dragged down by non-recurring items.

To its credit, BP is out-performing other integrated majors like Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-B), which posted a 12% drop in operating cash flow last year. Royal Dutch Shell is suffering with severe operational problems that are bringing down cash flow, such as falling energy production.

The Foolish conclusion
The April 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill nearly brought energy giant BP to its knees. After nearly four years of asset sales and tens of billions in financial payments and further penalties to come, it's still weighed down by the incident. Going further, the next few years will contain many of the same conditions BP is encountered with today.

Still, BP continued making strides toward progress last year. The company has done what is necessary to deal with the full financial brunt of the Gulf of Mexico spill and allow for it to return to normal business as quickly as possible.

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Bob Ciura owns shares of BP p.l.c. (ADR). The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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