Business

How to reconstruct BP

BBC business editor Robert Peston considers the future strategy of the oil giant.

BP's sale to Apache for £4.6bn of oil and gas assets in Canada, the US and Egypt takes it most of the way to hitting its short-term target for the funds it wants to raise to meet the vast costs arising from the Macondo oil spill.

The chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, says there will be other opportunities to sell assets that he claims will be worth more to others than to BP. Or to put it another way, the company has taken a strategic decision to shrink.

But how much smaller will BP become? Will it ultimately decide that all or most of its market-leading American operation is worth more to another company that unlike itself isn't regarded as public enemy number one in the US.

At the moment, BP hopes it can retain a substantial US presence. An exit would represent a U-turn on the strategy that drove the company for the best part of the last 20 years.

This would not be an apposite moment to make the definitive judgement of whether to exile itself from America.

Emotions in the US about BP are running so high - witness the determination of Washington lawmakers to implicate BP in the release of the Lockerbie bomber - that it's impossible to take a reliable reading of whether BP will be non-grata among American politicians and citizens forever.

That said, the recent progress on the twin imperatives of fixing the Gulf of Mexico leak and avoiding bankruptcy means the board of BP has to start preparing itself to make the really tough decisions.

In that sense, the 28% recovery in BP's share price since the end of last month is a message to the directors - especially the non-executives - that reconstruction is about to supersede firefighting as the priority.

These are the questions.

Quite how radical does BP need to be in breaking up its vast sprawling network of assets?

What is the optimal size and structure for an oil company to manage the risks that have been exposed by the Macondo disaster?

And then there's that awful conundrum for a unitary board of BP's sort: to win back the confidence of shareholders and of the US government, do BP's non-executives need to start negotiating the departure terms for the chief executive, Tony Hayward, the chairman, Mr Svanberg, or both?

Update, 11:32: I hadn't appreciated the full financial significance of BP's current attempts to cap the Macondo well (as opposed to sealing it, which is the next stage).

If BP succeeds in shutting off all flow of oil from the Macondo well for an extended period through the installation of the so-called capping stack - which may happen this weekend - that would go some way to proving that the design of the well is not fundamentally flawed, that the well has integrity, that it can withstand significant pressure without springing new leaks.

This really matters, because much of the criticism of BP - especially from Congress - is that the company cut corners in the design of the well to save money; and that charge would be much harder to prove if the well remains intact when subject to increased internal pressure.

There would be a number of positive benefits for BP from such an outcome - one of which would be a diminution in the size of potential fines and penalties it faces to the tune of several billions of dollars.

Also, it would imply either that more-or-less any oil company could have suffered the same disaster, or that the contractors on the project, Halliburton and Transocean, have a great deal to answer for.

Either way, BP would find itself in a much better place - one in which the Macondo disaster became more of an industry-wide issue than just a horror story called BP.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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