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NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Is it harder to imagine a positive catalyst or negative catalyst for

BP

(BP) - Get BP Plc Report

stock being the next major event for the oil spill company in 2011?

It's an easier question to ask than answer, and it's part and parcel of the debate about whether BP shares will reach full recovery in 2011. The knee-jerk response might be to think that since BP shares rock bottomed in 2010, the situation can only improve in 2011.

Yet a fair amount of recovery in BP shares has already taken place. BP shares reached an oil spill low of $26.75 back in June, when it seemed as if the oil company might never take control of the underwater gusher. BP shares have clawed their way back to the $43 to $44 level, where they have been trading since mid-December.

It hasn't hurt BP shares that crude oil finally surpassed the $90 mark, and many 2011 market outlooks include crude above the $100 mark.

>>Where Will BP Shares Trade in 2011

What

full

recovery for BP shares would mean, in the least, is easy to quantify if one wants to think of the company as pre- and post-oil spill and goes no further than that.

BP shares were trading just right around the $60 mark before the BP Macondo well blew and

Transocean's

(RIG) - Get Transocean Ltd. Report

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Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico.

So is it another leg up to the $60 mark as the energy sector rallies in 2011, or can the news still get worse for BP, or in the least, keep the oil stock mired in the oil spill muck, which from a legal perspective, will be measured in years as opposed to barrels.

The biggest negative for BP is the fact that the final price tag from the oil spill won't be known any time soon. Even though the company took a $32 billion charge in the second quarter, set up the $20 billion escrow fund with the government, and suspended its dividend, negative headlines still loom for the British oil company, headlines that may move the oil spill abacus.

Negative headlines, as a rule, aren't going away. Just look at the

New York Times

piece over the week, a 12-page epic on everything that went wrong with the Macondo well and on the Deepwater Horizon rig -- and apparently EVERYTHING did go wrong -- and the article didn't neglect to mention that BP managers were paid bonuses based partially on the speed and price at which projects were finished. On the other hand, the

Times

Deepwater Horizon epic also made clear that a lot of what did go wrong was not the specific fault of BP, and that Transocean procedures and processes, in particular, also failed in virtually every regard.

Yet it's the legal and economic ramifications embedded in the BP headlines, namely: will BP face criminal charges brought by the Justice Department, and will BP be accused of gross negligence in the environmental disaster.

It's a well-reported fact of oil-spill math that gross negligence will up the pollution bill faced by BP by as much as four times -- $4,300 per barrel spilled versus $1,100.

Yet it's less well understood how this will all play out in the courts, how hard it will be for the government to successfully prosecute gross negligence in the oil-spill context, and how much of the final oil-spill bill will be paid by BP partners, such as Transocean,

Anadarko Petroleum

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, and possibly even

Halliburton

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-- though it was not named in the recent Justice Department civil law suit against the oil spill companies.

>>Obama Launches BP Oil Spill Lawsuit

Does BP get left with the full bill and a mug shot being required as a grossly negligent criminal? If so, all bets are off as to whether the $32 billion set aside by the company will be enough to cover the oil spill liabilities.

For some investors, it was just these types of legal questions that led them to invest in other beaten-down energy stocks in 2010, while discarding BP in the value stock bin. Readers of

TheStreet

wrote us to say that they were busy investing in Transocean, blowout preventer manufacturer

Cameron International

(CAM)

, and unrelated oil service stock

Schlumberger

(SLB) - Get Schlumberger NV Report

for less risky, high reward energy sector plays.

Yet for other investors, one big bump still to come in BP shares will occur with the reinstatement of the shareholder dividend. When BP's top brass stood on the White House lawn to announce that the dividend had been suspended, the move came as a shock to many shareholders. BP was a staple of dividend plays for U.K.-based fund managers and conservative investors. BP said at the time it will reinvestigate the dividend situation in 2011. Considering how many investors wouldn't, or couldn't, hold BP shares without a dividend payment, will the reinstatement of the dividend serve the stock in a way similar to a stock being added to the S&P 500 Index, providing a one-time, hard-to-beat stock pop?

Some investors wrote

TheStreet

to say that between the rise in crude oil prices and the likelihood of a dividend reinstatement by BP in 2011, the stock is headed right back to its pre-oil spill level of $60.

Investors also suggested to

TheStreet

that as the global economy recovers, the oil spill is near-sighted as a way to analyze a company with global operations and diversified across many types of natural resources. Indeed, BP is a company with annual profits in the neighborhood of $50 billion.

Yet it's also a company that, in the worst-case scenario, could still lose its license to operate its major assets in the Gulf of Mexico, though talk of the U.S. government "de-barring" BP has been less prevalent since the oil spill was finally contained (not to mention since the White House even stepped up and said making BP go bankrupt was in no one's interest).

In the end, for every potential positive catalyst for BP shares, there's a negative catalyst, arguably more vague, that exists for the oil company. Yet a poll recently conducted by

TheStreet

seems to show investors betting heavily on the next BP catalyst being a positive catalyst for the oil company.

Roughly 52% of investors think BP shares will trade between $50 and $60 in 2011. This doesn't suggest BP shares will surpass their pre-oil spill level, but will come close or even with the BP value back before April 20, 2010. In any event, it means a considerable rise from its current shares price near the $44 mark.

Another 23% of investors actually think BP shares will surpass the $60 mark in 2011. It may seem a long way away right now, but, in fact, BP shares were trading at a 52-week high above $62 shortly before the oil spill.

Viewed together, 75% of poll respondents believe BP is headed at least to $50, and possibly above the $60 threshold.

Outright pessimism about BP stock in 2011 was nowhere to be found. Only 3% of poll takers think BP will dip below the $40 mark next year.

This is not to say there aren't plenty of investors with a healthy level of skepticism about another leg up in BP shares from the current level, given the legal uncertainties. Approximately 22% of survey takers think that in 2011 BP stock will trade right where it is trading now, even since the worst of the oil spill was surpassed -- between $40 and $50.

It wouldn't be the worst thing for a stock still facing potential criminal charges by the U.S. government and with partner companies in the oil spill still saying they believe BP is wholly to blame.

Nevertheless, the only thing one can say for certain is that BP shareholders want shares to continue back to life in 2011.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

RELATED STORIES:

>>Where Will BP Shares Trade in 2011

>>Obama Launches BP Oil Spill Lawsuit

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