I'd rather not contend that the latest earnings report isn't the most meaningful occurrence at big London-based energy producer BP (NYSE:BP). But its latest earnings report isn't ... you get the picture.

Indeed, a cleanup that BP is undergoing should be of far greater importance to long-term investors than the quarterly earnings dance. It's a cleanup that stands a good chance of returning the company to the straight and narrow and, ultimately, to materially benefit shareholders.

But since this is earnings season, let me bow in the direction of the quarterly dance and tell you quickly that BP's net profit fell 29% to $4.4 billion, down from $6.2 billion for the third quarter of 2006. On a per-ADS basis, the company earned $1.22, down from $2.10 a year ago.

The culprit in the earnings declines was primarily downstream operations, where reduced margins and shutdowns at the company's refineries took a toll. This was generally expected. A sale of BP's Coryton refinery in England also lowered throughput in the quarter.

But the real activity going on at the company appears to be a scrubbing instituted by new CEO Tony Hayward, who replaced prior CEO Lord John Browne, who resigned amid personal controversy earlier this year. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the cleanup will involve the payment of $303 million in fines to settle civil charges involved with a U.S. federal investigation into price-fixing in the propane market in 2004.

BP will also apparently pay another $50 million fine in the settlement of a U.S. investigation into violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act relating to a 2005 blast at the Texas City refinery. The explosion killed 15 and injured more than 170 others. Both fines are expected to be announced Thursday.

BP's down quarter will almost certainly be followed to varying degrees by most of the big integrated companies, including ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron (NYSE:CVX). At the same time, service companies Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB), Halliburton (NYSE:HAL), and Weatherford (NYSE:WFT) have all reported improved results.

But the key for BP, it seems to me, is for Hayward to drive the company beyond its past mistakes and misfortunes, which also have included a major Alaskan pipeline spill, a fire at the Whiting refinery, and hurricane damage to its huge Thunder Horse production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. If he can do that, BP seemingly could make investors very, very happy over time.

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