(BP oil spill, poll story updated for relief well drilling, Justice Department probe)
NEW YORK (
) -- The blowout preventer (BOP) that was supposed to be the ultimate failsafe for the
Macondo well is having its first public photo-op on Monday morning. The press was invited by the Bureau of Ocean Management to come to New Orleans to snap some shots of the BOP, as if parading a long-hunted fugitive from justice proudly before the public after its capture.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Coast Guard fished the failed failsafe out of the Gulf of Mexico.
And while the BOP finally sees the light of day -- and could hold some clues to what went wrong 18,000 feet below the ocean's surface, like a deepwater version of the aviation black box -- the BOP debut comes one week after BP debuted its version of events leading up to the oil spill disaster.
The BOP and the BP report have come to light just as BP restarted the drilling of the relief wells on Monday. The relief wells, which had been suspended in August, will be the final clamp on the runaway Macondo well, but the legal portion of the BP oil spill saga isn't going to be shut any time soon. The latest actions from BP in the oil spill saga also coincide with a claim from BP making the rounds of the financial press this week that could be judged as dubious as the BP report.
New BP CEO Robert Dudley reportedly told Citigroup analysts at a meeting that total claims against BP could end up being less than the $20 billion set aside in the oil spill escrow fund. Estimates for the potential BP liabilities resulting from the oil spill vary widely based on the issue of gross negligence, the portion of liability ultimately to be paid by other companies involved in the spill, and the plethora of lawsuits that have been filed against BP.
Putting a ceiling on the final BP price tag would seem suspect, not to mention a questionable comment for incoming BP CEO Dudley to make to Citigroup analysts, given selective disclosure regulations in the U.S. BP took a $32 billion charge in its last earnings to cover oil spill liabilities, and that dovetails with the reported comments from Dudley that liabilities and oil spill cleanup and containment expenses in total might not exceed $32 billion. However, BP made clear in taking the earnings charge that it did not represent a ceiling on oil spill payments.
The BP report on the oil spill, released at the beginning of last week, as expected divvied up the blame for the oil spill, roping in rig operator
and deep-sea engineer
Energy market analysts expected BP to play the game of spreading the blame in its oil spill report, but some were surprised by the extent to which BP sought to shift the blame in the oil spill analysis. As Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in his response to the BP report -- and its eight probable causes for the rig explosion and oil spill -- BP accepted one-half of the blame for one of eight contributing factors to the oil spill.
There was a large focus from BP in the report on the deepwater cementing job completed by Halliburton -- "a bad job" in the words of outgoing BP CEO Tony Hayward.
The focus from BP on Halliburton wasn't a big surprise. Back when Tony Hayward testified before Congress and faced accusations that BP's basic well-drilling practices were suspect, Hayward refuted any suggestion that BP was not operating within industry norms. The chief executives of all of BP's major competitors had been called in to testify ahead of Hayward, and far from having BP's back, the other major oil companies said that the way BP drilled would not ever be a method employed by their companies.
BP has seized on the cementing job completed by Halliburton as a way to show that the well's failure was not related to the design of the well, but rather, the result of a combination of unexpected factors, with a bad cementing job being prominent among them. In making its legal case to avoid charges of gross negligence, it would certainly help BP to prove that its well design was not flawed.
In the 200 pages of the BP report, the words gross negligence don't appear.
For investors, the issue last week with the release of the BP report was whether it provided any more confidence on which to make a bet on depressed BP shares. BP shares did rise after the report was released, but so did shares of Halliburton and Transocean. Energy shares, in general, rallied last week, leading a resurgent market.
BP shares were as likely, if not more likely, helped by a ratings upgrade from Fitch Ratings as from an internal report that the public and regulators were wary of even before it was released. Halliburton and Transocean were obviously not lining up to support the BP version of events either.
It was revealed last week in a
Wall Street Journal
report that whereas BP trumpeted the independent nature of its oil spill investigation, and the firewall between the investigative team and BP top brass, BP lawyers did review the report before its release and had the chance to offer advice and revisions.
This revelation set off some Pinocchio-meters when it comes to BP's trustworthiness, but it may be more a reflection that BP has made too many missteps to deserve trust than the fact that the BP lawyers were really set on a whitewash.
On the other hand, Halliburton's CEP David Lesar made his biggest annual sale of Halliburton shares last week, another fact brought to the surface that could be misinterpreted as providing a read on the oil spill blame game. Could the Halliburton CEO have been selling shares as a result of the revelations in the BP report about the bad cementing job? Was bad cementing equivalent to an insider sell recommendation?
The Justice Department isn't taking BP at its word, but it is following up on BP's accusations against Halliburton. The Justice Department is planning to conduct laboratory analysis of Halliburton cement samples to see if BP's claims of a bad cement mix are in fact correct, according to a report in Monday's
Wall Street Journal
In any event, the release of the BP report did force one straightforward question on the public that whose answer was not buried in the deep or housed in the just-fished blowout preventer. We asked readers of
Do you trust the oil spill story offered by the BP report?
The results of the poll were not surprising, though did not demonstrate a level of BP scepticism as high as one might have thought would be the case.
Approximately 56% of survey takers said the BP report on the oil spill could not be trusted. The contrarian viewpoint was held by 44% of survey respondents, saying that the BP report was credible and that Transocean and Halliburton deserved their fair share of the blame for the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
In the end, the legal battle within which the BP report will be one piece of evidence introduced has years to go before it's through. It's surfaced, like the BOP being photographed today in New Orleans, but what's inside the report is anything but clear in terms of offering oil-spill resolution. For investors, a major relief rally in BP shares might be the equivalent of buying into a new fund created by Bernie Madoff.
--Written by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.
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