BP chairman: ‘We are a different company’ from a year ago

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg reassured shareholders today that the British oil giant has become a “different company” in the year since the deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster and asked for patience as the company continues to recover from the crisis.

“Everything we have done since Deepwater Horizon has had one aim; to win back the trust of shareholders and communities the world over,” Svanberg said in a speech kicking off BP’s annual meeting in London.

The company’s efforts have included making safe operations a top priority, overhauling management ranks, announcing the sale of more than $30 billion in assets and paying billions in claims to Gulf Coast residents affected by the massive oil spill, he said.

BP also temporarily cut dividend payments, an unpopular move among investors,which Svanberg described as “one of the hardest decisions we have taken.”

But it was an “absolutely imperative” act to preserve financial flexibility in the face of mounting spill claims, he said. And contrary to rumors, BP was not forced into cutting the dividend by the U.S. government, Svanberg added, noting that the topic did not come up in his meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House during the spill.  The dividend has since been restored, though at a lower level than prior to the disaster.

BP  faced protests Thursday at the annual meeting from environmental groups and others about the lingering effects of the Gulf spill. But the company was also expected to feel backlash from investors upset by management’s handling of the crisis.

One additional point of contention has been BP’s so far unsuccessful $16 billion attempt to form a partnership with Russia’s state-owned Rosneft to explore the Russian Arctic. Announced in January, a share swap deadline was due to expire Thursday. BP announced today that it negotiated an extension of the deadline to May 16.

The annual meeting was BP’s first since its Macondo well blowout on April 20, 2010, which killed 11 workers and triggered the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

After the accident, BP reported a loss of $4.9 billion for 2010, much of it due to $40.9 billion in pre-tax charges set aside for the spill.

“I know this has been a difficult year. I know you are disappointed,” Svanberg told one shareholder during a question and answer portion of the annual meeting. “But I can assure you I will do everything I can bring a prosperous future for this company.”