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Can BP Survive Gulf of Mexico Catastrophe?

Can BP Survive Gulf of Mexico Catastrophe?
Can BP Survive Gulf of Mexico Catastrophe?

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Following a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP's reputation in the United States has been badly tarnished.

BP once stood for "British Petroleum'"  The company rebranded itself as simply BP in 1998, but that has not stopped many Americans from using the old name.

Even the U.S. president has referred pointedly to the company as "British Petroleum," and many in Britain have taken it as an attack against their country.

BP is one of Britain's largest companies.  Its founders began oil explorations in modern-day Iran more than 100 years ago.  Now it operates in 80 countries around the world.

Jeremy Batstone-Carr, head of research at stockbroker Charles Stanley, says BP is now a global company.    

"BP is a British company, but it is a multi-national company as well," said Jeremy Batstone-Carr. "It owns substantial businesses in the United States.  It has substantial assets in Asia and in Russia, so it is an extremely important global economy."

But, as tens of thousands of barrels of oil continue to flow daily into the Gulf of Mexico, killing wildlife, damaging the environment and ruining livelihoods, the company is suffering as well.

BP has already spent over $1 billion on the clean-up operation .  That sum pales in comparison to the planned $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the disaster.

The company's reputation is also in tatters.  Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress have accused BP of taking shortcuts that raised the risk of disaster and of being dishonest about the scale of the problem.

Even before this oil leak, BP's safety policies were in doubt following major accidents in Alaska and Texas in the past decade.  And now many Americans say they have had enough.

Batstone-Carr says he thinks BP is strong enough to sustain this double-blow to its bank balance and its reputation, but the ultimate outcome is still unknown.

"I don't think at this stage, nobody knows whether BP will be forced to be broken up, whether it might actually end up being so weakened that it falls into the arms of somebody else," he said. "My suspicion is at this moment in time, that that won't happen.  But there is a lot of uncertainty, and of course that is manifest in the share price which has lost about 40 percent of its value over the course of the past six or seven weeks."

Alan Smith, chief executive of the financial planning firm Capital Asset, says with BP's value almost cut in half, it is not just the people at the top who will be hit.  He says it is worrying for the millions of Britons who are invested in the company.

"BP is hugely important to the British economy in general and particularly to private interests and members of pension schemes, most of whom have got exposure to BP just simply due to the size as an institution," said Alan Smith. "So their shares tend to be very widely owned and widely held."

Under pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama, BP bosses have decided not to pay out dividends to their shareholders this year.

Smith says many people may depend on those payments.

"How that affects the individual who owns BP shares and relies upon those to generate income, means that they're not going to have any income at all during this month," he said. "Let's hope that that is a short term, temporary situation and that BP will revert to paying their dividends out in full later in the year."

And he says it is not just Britons whose bank balance may suffer.

"Although it is quoted on the London Stock Exchange and is generally perceived to be a British company, BP is definitely much more an international company of huge importance to the American economy and the American employees," said Smith. "BP actually when they merged with Amoco some years ago, the profile of the employees within the organization changed significantly and now for every British employee of BP there are two and a half Americans working for BP."

But, back in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil is still gushing out.  And until BP finds a way to stem the flow, no one can estimate the full effect of this disaster on BP, its shareholders, or employees.  

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