Business

Oil spill 'mother of all liability claims'

BP is probably sturdy enough to survive the worst oil spill in U.S. history. But investors are shaving billions of dollars off its value with every day that crude gushes into the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday alone, the first trading day since BP's latest attempt at a fix failed, and the day the government announced it had opened a criminal probe into the disaster, its stock took a hit of 15 percent.

The British oil giant is worth $75 billion less on the open market than it was when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded six weeks ago. Other companies involved in the spill — Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron — have all lost at least 30 percent in value.

And as oil seeps unchecked into the Gulf, nearby states, businesses, environmental regulators and injured workers and cleanup crews are eyeing damages that could total billions of dollars more.

"This will be the mother of all liability claims," said Fred Kuffler, a Philadelphia maritime lawyer who has handled oil-spill lawsuits.

The stakes were raised Tuesday as Attorney General Eric Holder said federal authorities had opened criminal and civil investigations into the spill. He did not specify which companies or individuals might be targets.

BP says it has spent $990 million so far on fighting and cleaning the spill. Its liabilities and potential fines are growing by the day, and it could be August before the company gets control of the situation by completing two relief wells.

The company has already agreed to pick up the government's cleanup tab and any "legitimate" damage claims. BP said Tuesday that it has paid out about $40 million to cover about half of the 30,000 claims it has received.

At least 130 lawsuits have been filed seeking damages for business lost from the spill. Most are from seafood processing plants, charter boat captains, hotels, restaurants and others who make their living from the sea or from coastal tourism.

Based on federal law, BP and partners Anadarko Petroleum and Mitsui & Co. also face a minimum fine of $1,000 per barrel of oil spilled, said Eric Schaeffer, who led the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement office from 1997 to 2002. Schaeffer is now director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

The government estimates 20 million to 43 million gallons of crude have gushed into the Gulf over the past six weeks. If the spill were contained today, the fines would add up to between $480 million and $1 billion.

Already, the Gulf disaster has eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which, after two decades of lawsuits, cost Exxon Mobil $4.5 billion, or roughly $654 per gallon in today's dollars, according to Blake Fernandez, an analyst with Howard Weil, an energy investment firm with headquarters in New Orleans.

Experts are increasingly looking at the Valdez disaster as a conservative model because the Gulf Coast is home to far more people and businesses than Alaska, where the Valdez ran aground.

In addition to cleanup costs, the government will probably ask BP to pay for restoring an oil-soaked coastline — including repairs to sensitive marshlands, oyster beds and fisheries, Kuffler said.

BP also will face claims from commercial fishermen, hotels, party boat operators and other businesses that depend on the Gulf Coast.

"Think of everything you find at a beachfront resort, like Jet Skis and trip planners. The contractors involved, they will all have claims," Kuffler said.

Altogether, the impact on tourism, fishing, property values and other damages could reach $10 billion to $15 billion, said Ahmad Ijaz, an economist for the center for business and economic research at the University of Alabama.

BP is self-insured, and analysts say it has enough money to pay for the growing calamity without putting the company at risk of bankruptcy.

Most of its legal costs will be spread out over years, if not decades, as suits wind their way through the courts. The company can also borrow up to $15 billion from various credit lines to pay for cleanup and other costs without overextending debt beyond company targets.

BP also will benefit from what has become an extremely lucrative oil production business. As long as oil prices stay above $60 a barrel, BP's other oil rigs will make enough money to maintain company operations and pay shareholders the expected $10 billion in dividends, Fernandez said.

"They could use the rest to pay down debt or whatever," he said.

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