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BP’s Future at Risk as Share Plunge Fuels Takeover Speculation

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By Brian Swint and Stanley Reed

June 2 (Bloomberg) — BP Plc’s failure to stop an oil leak from spewing millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico may leave the biggest oil and gas producer in the U.S. in a fight to stay independent.

BP shares have plunged 34 percent since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig leased by the company exploded on April 20, wiping more than 40 billion pounds ($58 billion) from the company’s value. That may make BP cheap enough to attract acquisition interest, investors said.

“The market value of BP has eroded substantially, so it could be a takeover target,” said Dirk Hoozemans, who helps manage about $4.5 billion at Robeco Group in Rotterdam, which sold its BP holding last year. What matters now is how forceful BP’s Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward is in tackling the disaster and the aftermath, Hoozemans said.

With a permanent end to the leak depending on so-called relief wells that are some two months from completion, Hayward faces costs that may reach $22 billion, or more than last year’s profit, according to ING Wholesale Banking. The company also faces a criminal and civil investigation in the U.S. into the disaster.

BP spokeswoman Sheila Williams declined to comment for this story.

In addition to being the largest oil and gas producer in the U.S., BP is the biggest operator in the Gulf of Mexico, where it holds more than 500 leases and pumps 450,000 barrels of oil a day. The company plans 10 projects in the Gulf during the next five years, more than other region of the world, according to a BP presentation.

‘Fire Sale’

“Forty percent of BP’s reserves are in the Gulf of Mexico and if there’s a chance that they would be banned from operating in the U.S., then those reserves would be valued at a much lower multiple than their rest-of-the-world reserves, said Gordon Kwan, the Hong Kong-based head of regional energy research at Mirae Asset Securities Ltd. “They might have to sell at a fire sale to others.”

Some analysts estimate the potential for criminal investigation and civil lawsuits facing BP could be as high as $40 billion, which would justify the roughly $50 billion loss in market value, Kwan said.

President Obama

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether any criminal or civil laws were violated in the spill, Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday.

Holder announced the investigation at a news conference in New Orleans, the same day President Barack Obama called the spill “the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history.”

Obama last week extended a moratorium on deep water drilling permits by six months. He has dropped plans to open waters off the coast of Virginia to drilling, canceled a lease sale in the Gulf and suspended the permit process for Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s planned wells off Arctic Alaska. He said new safety rules will be imposed on drilling.

BP has spent $990 million on trying to stop the gusher on the seabed about a mile below the surface and on cleaning up oil from the Gulf. Payments to landowners, hoteliers and fisherman claiming losses from the spill will cause the bill to rise further.

‘The Tab Is Rising’

“The tab is rising every day,” said Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York. “BP could be facing a huge liability in compensation, damages and other charges.”

The cost for the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in 1989, previously the worst U.S. oil spill, resulting from clean-up costs, fines and settlements has reached at least $4.3 billion so far.

BP spokesman Scott Dean said in an e-mail May 19 that the London-based energy company is self-insured against losses and damage claims resulting from the spill.

In a worst-case scenario, where hurricanes, technological difficulties, or unforeseen problems thwart BP’s attempts to contain the oil and seal the well, the leak could spout almost 4 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico by Christmas, petroleum geologists and industry analysts said.

Decades of Damage?

The oil could suffocate fish and other marine life, damage shorelines along the Gulf Coast, sweeping around to Florida’s Atlantic Coast, and harm the economies that are dependent upon fishing and marine life, according to marine scientists. Toxic crude from the spill could remain trapped in layers of ocean water for decades, scientists say.

BP pumped 3.95 million barrels of oil and gas a day last year, making it the world’s largest producer outside government- owned oil companies. Exxon Mobil, its closest rival, pumped 3.93 million barrels a day.

BP’s market value, which surpassed Shell at the start of the year, has fallen behind Petroleos Brasileiro SA, Chevron Corp., and Russia’s OAO Gazprom. Paris-based Total SA pumped 2.28 million barrels last year and is priced about $9 billion less than BP on the stock market.

“We’re getting into share price territory where analysts speculate about takeover possibilities, because the loss of market value is much greater than the estimated ‘worst case’ costs,” said Ivor Pether, who helps manage $9.2 billion at Royal London Asset Management, including BP shares. “But there aren’t any buyers at this point because the near-term uncertainty is so high.”

Debt Ratio

Hayward reduced BP’s net debt ratio to 19 percent in the first quarter from 23 percent a year earlier, giving him greater ability to meet cleanup costs and related liabilities. The company has an AA credit rating from Standard & Poor’s and made a record $6 billion profit in the first quarter on $73 billion of revenue.

“The liability could be tens of billions of dollars, but I do think BP has the balance sheet capacity to be able to handle a hit like that,” said Jason Gammel, an analyst at Macquarie Securities USA Inc. in New York. “It’s too early to say it’s a takeover candidate because no one wants to own an unquantifiable liability.”

BP is now trying to contain the spill by fitting a pipe over the leak to bring the oil to a drillship on the surface. The operation may temporarily increase the flow of oil into the Gulf before a cap can seal the pipe, BP said yesterday.

Hayward has promised to clean up “every drop” of oil in the Gulf and on the shoreline from the well that has gushed up to 19,000 barrels of oil a day, according to a government estimate. BP is drilling two relief wells to intercept the damaged pipes and permanently plug the damaged pipes, a process that won’t be completed until August.

–With assistance from Juan Pablo Spinetto, Eduard Gismatullin, Elliott Gotkine and Eric Burg in London, Yee Kai Pin in Singapore and Deirdre Bolton in New York. Editors: Will Kennedy, Peter Langan

To contact the reporters on this story: Brian Swint in London at [email protected]; Stanley Reed in London at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Will Kennedy at [email protected]

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