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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

BP back on front foot eight years after Deepwater Horizon disaster

CEO says with oil prices at their highest since 2014 and shares back to levels not seen since 2010, firm is in a position to contemplate boosting dividends and acquiring

Group Chief Executive of BP Bob Dudley says British energy major is back on track but pressures remain. Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Group Chief Executive of BP Bob Dudley says British energy major is back on track but pressures remain. Henry Nicholls/Reuters

After the near collapse of his company following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster and a three-year slump in oil prices, BP chief executive Bob Dudley is hardly relaxed.

"It doesn't feel like we are in a serene time for any energy company," Mr Dudley told Reuters.

BP is stronger today than at any other time since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig accident.

With oil prices at their highest since late 2014 and BP shares back to levels not seen in more than eight years, it is once again in a position to contemplate boosting dividends and acquiring, Mr Dudley said.

Sitting in his office in BP's central London headquarters in St James Square, Mr Dudley, 62, said he intends to carry on leading the company into 2020 and navigate it through a phase of expansion and new uncertainty following a tumultuous eight years at the helm.

On Tuesday, the British major said it plans to cut 3 per cent of jobs in exploration and production, as part of a restructuring of its global upstream business to make the division more efficient and competitive.

A BP spokesman said the cuts of around 540 jobs from the company’s 18,000-strong total upstream workforce will be carried out by the end of the year.

The move is part of an ongoing process to simplify the company’s structure and increase efficiency, following the $50bn worth of divestments over recent years, BP said. It did not comment on any possible cost savings associated with the redundancies.

The oil and gas sector is looking to retain its relevance as economies battle climate change by weaning themselves from their dependence on fossil fuels, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

For BP, it is a two-speed race.

The 110-year old company is undergoing its fastest growth in recent history with new oil and gasfields from Egypt and Oman to the US Gulf of Mexico, riding a tide of higher oil prices following the 2014 downturn.

It is gradually paying off more than $65 billion in penalties and clean-up costs for the Deepwater Horizon accident, which left 11 workers dead.

The offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico was destroyed in 2011. Reuters
The offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico was destroyed in 2011. Reuters

Regarding the danger of the company going bankrupt at the time, Mr Dudley said: "The worst moment was when I heard that our debt was untradable back in the summer of 2010 ... To me that was a moment of the unthinkable was possible."

He says he no longer sees BP as an acquisition target after facing years of speculation it could be bought out.

The company is focused on increasing production and cash flow while reducing its large debt pile, after which it will consider boosting shareholder returns such as dividends although "we're not at that point yet", Mr Dudley said.

Longer-term challenges also loom.

Investors are increasingly pressing energy companies to find ways to adapt to the energy transition, and Mr Dudley is looking to strike a balance between reducing a large carbon footprint while securing revenue.

"This is the great dual challenge that the industry and BP faces: how to supply the world's energy on multiple fronts of growing population and doing it with less emissions," said Mr Dudley, who was appointed to the helm of BP months after the April 2010 spill.

BP, like rivals such as Royal Dutch Shell, is betting on natural gas, the least polluting hydrocarbon, to sustain an expected surge in demand for electricity as economies grow and transportation is electrified.

Gas is also playing a key role as a back-up to renewable energy such as wind and solar in power generation.

To that end, BP is expanding its gas production through new projects in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Oman and Egypt .

Oman LNG, a government-controlled joint venture energy firm, has signed an SPA for the supply of liquefied natural gas to BP Singapore as the Muscat looks to boost its export revenues to support its economy.
Oman LNG signed an agreement for the supply of LNG to BP Singapore.

In April The National reported Oman, the largest Middle East oil producer outside Opec, plans to award contracts to oil majors such as BP, Shell, Total and Eni for hydrocarbons exploration over the next six months, as the sultanate looks to woo Big Oil back to boost production.

The contracts would be mix of bilateral contracts signed with the majors as well as awards from a bid round Oman concluded last year, Mohammed Al Rumhy told The National. The sultanate’s oil ministry had in 2017 offered four blocks in a licensing round to attract international oil and gas companies back.

The country would look to engage with Chinese and Indian energy players to boost domestic output, he added.

Oman saw several major oil companies exit its various concessions in the last few years as low crude prices made profitability challenging in the country’s maturing fields.

While any new crude deals would be considered, for BP gas accounts for over 55 per cent of its production.

"I am optimistic about the climate change if you can combine renewables wind and solar and natural gas. To me that's part of the big answer," Mr Dudley told Reuters.

In the early 2000s BP introduced the slogan "Beyond Petroleum" and adopted a sunburst logo after launching an $8bn expansion into renewables. The company was forced to write off its solar business 10 years later, but still retains a large US onshore wind business and biofuels plants.

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Now, Mr Dudley is taking a cautious approach, investing in smaller start-up companies in renewables, clean fuels and battery charging docks.

"We have to go slow and pick the right low-carbon fuels," he said. BP "will be a broad-based company that supplies all forms of energy that are needed that can be done economically".

The company will invest $500 million per year in low-carbon energy and technology in the coming years out of a total spending of $15bn to $17bn, a range which Mr Dudley said the company could stay within.

"If a shareholder or someone else came to BP tomorrow and said here is $10bn to invest in low-carbon energies for us, we would not know how to do that yet."

BP is also expanding its vast global network of petrol stations and investing in convenience stores and charging spots, hoping to retain its dominant brand as electric vehicles become more popular.

FILE PHOTO: An aircraft of Korean Airlines is seen above a BP petrol station approaching to land at Zurich Airport in Kloten, Switzerland October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD SEARCH GLOBAL BUSINESS 30 OCT FOR ALL IMAGES
A BP petrol station in Kloten, Switzerland. Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

"I'm not worried about BP in this area. The most strategic thing we can do is to get our balance sheet strong so that when we have the firepower we can do anything in these areas."

BP expects demand for oil to peak in the late 2030s, after which it will plateau and gradually decline.

For BP, whose roots go back to 1908 with the discovery of Iran's first oilfield, the days of the black gold are far from dead.

While oil prices in recent weeks have hit their highest levels since late 2014 at $80 a barrel, BP is working on an assumption that prices will remain at a range of $50-$65 per barrel due to surging US shale output and Opec's ability to crank up output.

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Natural gas to account for 60 per cent of Middle East consumption by 2040, says BP

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Mega projects involving complex, multi-billion facilities such as huge offshore platforms that came to symbolise the technological prowess of the world's top oil companies are most likely a thing of the past, Mr Dudley said.

Instead, BP is opting for phased developments that require less capital and less time to construct, which make them easier to control at a time of uncertainty over oil prices.

"Many of the companies in the industry are remembering the lesson learnt during the $100 oil era [which] is take it in phases," Mr Dudley said.

BP is applying this approach in many of its main production hubs such as Egypt and Gulf of Mexico, where it can continue raising production into the early 2020s, he said.

BP's oil and gas output is set to reach around 4 million barrels per day by the end of the decade, a level last seen in 2009, with more than a fifth of that coming from projects started since 2016.

It is partnering top oil producing nations that have some of the lowest costs of extraction such as Oman, Azerbaijan and most importantly Russia, where BP has a 19.75 per cent stake in Rosneft and from where it draws one third of its production.

A Rosneft Vietnam employee looks on at the Lan Tay gas platform in the South China Sea off the coast of Vung Tau, Vietnam April 29, 2018. Picture taken April 29, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
A Rosneft employee at a gas platform. BP owns a share of the Russian company.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

BP has a relatively small shale business, focused mostly on gas, but Mr Dudley is considering growing in the sector, which has attracted billions of dollars in investments in recent years.

"[Shale] comes down to economics and competitiveness on what is on offer. So far they feel overheated ... it is not a burning need to fill that in the portfolio, but if it is attractive, we will."

BP could place a bid for BHP Billiton's shale assets, Mr Dudley said.

BP's position in Russia has put the firm in the spotlight as the United States and Europe tighten sanctions on Moscow.

Mr Dudley, who sits on the board of Rosneft, believes BP can continue there and act as a bridge between countries.

"We don't apologise for doing business in Russia," he said. "Certainly today within the boundaries of the sanctions we can and do operate without issues."

BP will continue to operate in Russia and expand projects with Rosneft even though the company has had to turn down certain offers to develop projects offshore or in the Arctic, he said.

Mr Dudley also said BP remained committed to its stake in Rosneft, which it received following the 2013 sale of TNK-BP.