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Westminster and the river Thames
Westminster: the answer to BP's woes?Image: AP

Oil Crisis

July 8, 2010

While BP head Tony Hayward is in the United Arab Emirates meeting with unspecified business partners, there is talk back home of the British government extending the flailing company a hand.


BP head Tony Hayward headed east for talks with "important partners" shortly after a BP spokeswoman denied claims that the company was planning to sell any new stock to a strategic investor as part of a crisis plan.

"We are not issuing any new equity," the spokeswoman said. "We welcome new shareholders to come onto the shareholder register and we welcome existing shareholders who want to take a bigger amount of shares."

BP, which is so cash rich that it is self-insured, has already had to foot some 2.5 billion euros ($3.12 billion) worth of bills stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and has pledged to put a further 20 billion into an escrow fund to be used to compensate Americans whose livelihoods have been ravaged.

With up to 60,000 barrels of oil still believed to be leaking into the Gulf every day, less than half of it being captured, and predictions that it will be the middle of August before the well can be permanently capped, BP is looking at many more bills to come.

Oil spilling from the ruptured well
The oil keeps on comingImage: AP

And as those bills keep flowing in, they bring with them the inevitable question of what is to become of Britain's biggest corporation and the fourth largest company in the world. As the days go by, chatter about possible takeover bids from major competitors such as Shell, Total or Exxon grows louder. And so, this week, has talk of a possible government bailout.

Eyes on Westminster

The Times newspaper said the British government was working on crisis action in case the company found itself unable to cope with the cost of the oil leak.

An insider was reported to have told the daily that officials at the Department of Business and the Treasury were considering whether, under extreme circumstances, the government should intervene with a relief package.

Both the Business Department and the Treasury declined to comment, but analysts are reluctant to believe that Westminster would be willing to intervene.

Three elderly ladies at a playpark
Pensions in the UK are at riskImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"I can't rule it out, but I would be very surprised if that were to be the case," Vanessa Rossi, Senior Research Fellow with London's Chatham House told Deutsche Welle. "Especially given that the UK government is currently seeking to reduce deficit spending and any obligation to pay for such issues in the economy."

By the same token, she said it might just be conceivable that the current economic climate and the fact that banks have been the recipients of bailouts in very recent history could have altered the mindset which traditionally steers governments away from any involvement with private companies.

Calming effect

Alan Smith, CEO of Capital Assessment Management in London told Deutsche Welle that such a move would offer the market comfort and would have a positive effect on pension funds, which rely heavily on the value of BP shares. If the price were right.

"The bailout would need to be material and in financial terms could mean a government guarantee of up to 50 billion pounds (60 billion euros)," Smith said.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg
David Cameron and Nick Clegg have pledged cautious spendingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But Robert Falkner, senior lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics, said that things would need to get a whole lot more drastic before he could envisage the government stepping up and offering the company tax-payers money.

"I think the current coalition would be of the mindset that they would only need to do that if there were a systemic risk to energy," he said, adding that there are more likely solutions to the energy company's troubles. "If BP loses in value, it will eventually be taken over by someone else."

Who that someone might be is another game of speculation at this stage, but it is widely perceived to be a real possibility. And some analysts believe that is what investors are now hoping will happen. Whether it does depends on what happens out in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

"Everything hinges upon how and when they are able to cap the oil spill," Smith said. "If they can do so successfully by August, they will survive - if not, their share price will fall rapidly and they are likely to become a takeover target."

And given the great value of independence, that would be a high price to pay.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Mark Mattox

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