BP’s multibillion-dollar sell-off enters new phase

HOUSTON – The massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill left BP bent on trimming its balance sheet by selling off oil-producing and refining assets across the globe.

It collected $38 billion in a divestiture plan that ended last year — mostly to help pay for oil spill costs — and has signaled it wants to keep lightening its load. But BP could take a much different approach to its new plan, which is to sell off $10 billion in assets by the end of 2015.

For one, the company has said it will use proceeds to repurchase shares and boost dividends to shareholders, a bid to please investors who are still worried about looming oil spill fines. But analysts say BP can afford to take more time, be more deliberate and negotiate for more lucrative deals over the next two years.

The London oil giant may also plan to strike deals that are smaller than the $5-billion-and-up sales it pursued in the past two years. And it may sell smaller interests in projects it wants to retain, rather than selling off entire prospects, said Brian Youngberg, an analyst at Edward Jones.

Earnings report: BP quarterly profit falls as divestments impact income

BP’s plan is more evidence that integrated oil giants are shifting their focus away from production growth to improved profitability for each barrel of oil they sell, a symptom of disappointment with projects that fail to move the needle, Youngberg said.

“These companies have struggled to grow,” he said, pointing out that another oil giant, Chevron, produced less oil in 2013 than it did in 2003. But, he added, BP’s portfolio may have remained stagnant for years if not for the oil spill. “Sometimes it takes an emergency for someone to take action.”

Oil spill impact

BP was the world’s largest oil producer before the massive Gulf of Mexico well blowout in 2010. Investors erased $100 billion from BP’s market value overnight.

Since the spill, BP has sold off more mature, late-life assets in its upstream segment, such as three older platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. In some cases, BP has diverted capital to new projects in the largest U.S. offshore region, including its expansion last year of its operations in the Atlantis oil field, 100 miles south of New Orleans.

It made seven offshore discoveries last year and plans to start up six new oil production projects this year. But even as it ramps up oil production, BP could make selling assets a habit over the next few years.

“A company of our size should have a natural churn in the $2-billion to $3-billion range anyway,” BP CEO Bob Dudley said in a recent earnings conference call with investors.

Changing priorities

BP executives didn’t always think so — at least before a C-suite shakeup shortly after BP’s Macondo well was sealed shut, said Pavel Molchanov, an analyst with Raymond James.

“In many cases, BP has sold assets that should have been sold even if there was no Macondo,” Molchanov said.

Not every deal has been lucrative, though. BP recently attributed its fourth-quarter drop in profit to the impact of its divestitures — about $17 billion in total last year. The company’s next step, selling off another $10 billion in assets over two years, is a chance to make sure its deals boost its earnings, Molchanov said.

There are only a handful of assets that could clearly go. BP’s exposure to a weakened European refining market is one, but it’s going to be hard to find eager buyers for less lucrative units, said Youngberg of Edward Jones.

Still, BP and other integrated oil companies have seen the benefits of putting assets up on the sales block.

“The problem the big oil companies have gotten themselves into is investing for growth, but the growth does not always come,” he said. “Companies that have downsized have been rewarded with higher valuations.”

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