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Bees round the BP honeypot

By Wilt Staph

It’s all happening in the utmost secrecy, but it is now clear that determined efforts are underway to keep BP out of American hands. That ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips all have the financial resources to launch a hostile bid is not in doubt and the acquisition of BP’s huge assets would be a coup for any one of the three largest American oil companies. The move would also be very welcome to the White House – the President could characterise it as bringing American assets back into American hands. A substantial part of BP was previously Amoco – and there was no more American company than that. The submergence of Amoco into BP was seen as something of a  national humiliation by some Houston oil men and they would love to fly the stars and stripes over Amoco’s’ once assets again.

Meanwhile at BP’s London headquarters top management is desperately seeking a solution that would keep BP out of American hands – and in Brussels the European Union would like an all-European solution to the problem if they can find one. BP and the EU would prefer BP to merge with one of the two European oil multinationals – Royal Dutch Shell or Total. Although much of the talk has been of a Shell/BP merger (one nearly happened a few years ago in rather different circumstances) it is Total that the EU might favour.  Total has a recent history of entrepreneurship rather greater that the deeply conservative Anglo/Dutch Shell and their mergers with Elf and Petrofina are seen as having been a big success.

One thing that unites Washington and Brussels is the wish to keep BP out of the hands of predators from Russia, China or the OPEC countries. Each of the OPEC countries has a national oil company with the resources to acquire BP – and so do the Russians. The West would be extremely concerned if BP’s hydrocarbon assets, the second largest of any independent oil company after ExxonMobil, fell into potentially hostile hands. So whilst BP is reportedly in discussions in Moscow, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere seeking investment that would give up some of their equity in return for financial underpinning, such an outcome is not popular in the corridors of political power in Europe and the United States. The position of the British government is unclear. BP was the UK’s biggest company and its collapse is a concern not just because of the economic consequences but because of the loss of prestige that would result. Whilst British Government financial support can be ruled out for ideological reasons there may be Government pressure on city investors to stand by BP in its hour of need. The coalition cabinet would probably prefer a Shell/BP merger to the other options – the British element of such a corporation would be dominant. But Shell’s nervous and inward-looking top brass are not thought to be very keen on such a move.

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