BP slammed in US Deepwater Horizon report - and its shares go up

The White House may have been highly critical of BP. But a gross negligence charge now looks increasingly unlikely...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
It seems odd to describe the initial findings of the White House oil commission (set up to investigate the Gulf of Mexico spill) as good news for BP. The report is scathing about the oil giant’s myriad failings before, during and after the explosion that killed 11 people and caused untold environmental damage. However, it doesn’t seem to think the whole thing was BP’s fault; partners Halliburton and Transocean, government regulators and the industry as a whole are also in the firing line. That surely reduces the chances of BP being found guilty of gross negligence, potentially saving it billions in fines…

This isn’t actually the full report; that’s not due out until next week. But it does give a good flavour of the commission’s thinking. BP is clearly going to take a beating: today’s preview states that ‘BP did not have adequate controls in place to ensure that key decisions in the months leading up to the blow-out were safe or sound from an engineering perspective.’ Moreover, it suggests that despite all the contributing factors, the ‘single overarching failure [was] a failure of management’. And as the company with overall responsibility for the rig, that reflects particularly badly on BP.
Crucially, though, the commission suggested that all of those involved in designing, building and running the rig were partly to blame; notably, it points the finger at Halliburton and Transocean – who continue to deny all responsibility or liability for the disaster – almost as much as BP. There’s also some strong criticism of the US regulator, which it says lacked the ‘authority, the necessary resources, and the technical expertise’ to step in. And it suggests there are systemic problems within the oil industry, which will require radical reform to prevent this kind of accident happening again.

None of this is particularly positive, in the grand scheme of things: it paints a picture of an industry that became so obsessed with profit-hunting that all concerned became blasé about cutting corners on safety – thus endangering lives. And it will clearly be difficult to bring about this kind of reform, in the face of so many (well-resourced) vested interests.

But the plus side, as far as BP investors are concerned, is that the commission seems to agree with the oil giant’s claim that the accident wasn’t entirely its fault. This not only means it has more chance of forcing its partners to share the compensation bill, but it also makes it much less likely that the US government will be able to make a gross negligence charge stick.

Since that carried a maximum fine of $17.5bn – meaning BP’s ultimate fine is now likely to be much lower – that’s a big financial boost. Especially as it comes in the same week as news that it might not need to fork out the entirety of the $20bn compensation pot it’s handed over to the US authorities. Hence why BP’s share price was actually up today, despite that stinging criticism...

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