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Can BP Do Better?

It's a good thing that a booming market can cover up a lot of flaws at an oil company. Were that not the case, BP (NYSE: BP  ) might be in some real trouble right now. In roughly one year, this company has seen a major refinery accident, a pipeline rupture, a trading scandal, and ongoing delays in bringing the Thunder Horse platform back on line.

Yet profits continue to roll in to the company's coffers. Reported revenue rose 24% this quarter as significantly higher price realizations (up more than 23%) helped to offset a greater-than-2% decline in energy production. Assessing profitability is a bit hairier. Reported profits (on a replacement cost basis) climbed 23%, but there was a large charge in the year-ago period. Take that out, and the growth rate falls to about 5%.

Performance was likewise mixed within the individual business segments. E&P profits were up about 12% on an adjusted basis, but refinery and marketing profits rose about 20% on a similar basis, even though throughput and sales were both down (10% and 6%, respectively). As you might imagine, margins saved the day there -- overall refining margins were up almost 50%.

If this is the best BP can do, I can't see any good reason why investors should opt for this company over ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , or ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , to say nothing of slightly more exotic ideas like Eni (NYSE: E  ) .

I would argue, though, that this isn't the best BP can do. For starters, the company has historically posted low finding costs, and it has some pretty big projects in the near-term pipeline that should boost production. What's more, the recent accidents may be suggestive of sloppy or careless practices, but a thorough review and recommitment to best practices should avoid them in the future.

I do admit to being puzzled, though, by some of the company's priorities. It's willing to make a splash in alternative markets like solar power, where it will compete with large companies like Sharp and small companies like SuntechPower (NYSE: STP  ) , but it seems to have no interest in the Canadian oil sands projects. I'll grant that oil sands exploitation is more like mining in some respects, but it's a heckuva lot closer to its core competencies than solar power.

In any case, if you think BP has learned its lessons and that management is getting back on the right track, the shares don't look overpriced. If you're not quite as confident, though, there's a wealth of other options worth exploring.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).


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