by Aaron Levitt | October 7, 2013 9:25 am
Oh, the roller coaster that is BP’s (BP) legal woes. It actually has been quite fun to watch as an outsider, but if you’re a BP stock holder — especially if you bought before the Deep Horizon disaster — I would imagine this has been a pretty rough ride. Lawsuit after lawsuit, asset sale after asset sale, has mired much of the long-term thesis of BP.
And the hits keep on coming.
After receiving some good news, BP stock is once again facing some issues related to the worst oil spill in history, which killed 11 workers and released approximately 5 million barrels of crude into the sea. Investors looking at the European integrated giant today still must weigh all of these legal troubles when contemplating buying the stock.
If anything can be seen as win in the whole BP stock situation, it’s the recent ruling regarding payments to spill victims.
Last week, BP won an injunction against a previous ruling on how the settlement with claimants was interpreted. BP had argued that the “Settle Czar” was essentially handing out payments willy-nilly to victims and had been approving fabricated payments for business economic losses. Based on the agreement that BP reached with victims last year, several of these payments shouldn’t have counted.
According to the 67-page ruling, the injunction will allow for the stoppage of payments for up to a year as the courts will re-decide who actually deserved payment versus fraudulent claims. BP had argued from the beginning that complex accounting issues that underlined some settlement claims caused them to either be fraudulent or rushed through the process. Overall, the court’s ruling could help BP save millions of dollars and analysts estimate that approval rates for future settlement payouts would cut by a quarter.
This is the first piece of positive news that BP has seen from this whole disaster since 2010. Needless to say, the integrated oil giant scored a major win with the injunction and shares rose more than 2% on the news.
While the injunction is a nice boost for BP stock (and the company’s ego), it’s only temporary. The courts still are hammering out the big issues — the kind of issues that could see BP pay out more than $18 billion in fines.
Last Monday, the civil trial against BP began its second phase. These piece of the trial will be used to determine just how much oil BP spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Prosecutors for the government will argue that across 87 days — before the well was capped — a total 4.9 million barrels of oil was discharged into the sea. That’s roughly the equivalent of one-quarter of all the oil consumed in the United States in a day. BP has stated that only 3.26 million barrels was spilled.
That difference is a big deal.
Under the Clean Water Act, fines for simple negligence would be $1,100 for every barrel spilled, but as much as $4,300 per barrel if a company is found to have been grossly negligent. If the Justice Department has its way, BP could be on the hook for around $18 billion in fines stemming from this piece of the trial … and things aren’t looking so hot for BP based on testimony so far.
According to James Dupree — BP’s manager in charge of controlling the Macondo blowout — many on the team were never trained to permanently plug a ruptured oil well, and the British company was not fully prepared for such an enormous oil spill. Dupree was directly quoted as saying under oath, “I had no formal training in well-kill operations.”
Additionally, prosecutors provided evidence that BP lied about its flow rate estimate of a 5,000 barrels per day — which was much lower than what some internal models were telling BP engineers. According to emails and other internal documents, several BP engineers predicted that the flow rate could have been as high as 100,000 barrels per day.
Meanwhile, both Halliburton (HAL) and Transocean (RIG) — contractors on the project — have also voiced their opinion and provided evidence that BP has lied about the flow rate and delayed the final capping of the well.
While BP scored a major victory with the settlement claims injunction, the big battles are still being fought, and things don’t look good on that end. If the company is found grossly negligent in its duties to cap the spill, BP stock could be put in a hurt locker thanks to massive fines … not to mention any other lawsuit that might arise from that fact. In fact, some analysts still predict that BP will have to sell off some assets to continue paying for the legal overhang and potential claims.
Despite its rising share price since 2010, I still can’t get behind BP stock as an investment. All oil and natural gas companies have legal issues from one time or another, but the continued Macondo saga isn’t good. BP continues to be forced to focus solely on this spill, while other firms — such as ConocoPhillips (COP) or Hess (HES) — continue to drive production gains and profits.
There are several large energy firms that are worth an investment. Right now, BP isn’t one of them.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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