BP walks back its role in the gulf oil spill

By Shelley DuBois, reporter


FORTUNE -- As the last tar balls settle on the bottom of the Gulf, it looks like BP may have some extra cash on hand.

The company might not have to pay all of the $20 billion in claims, incoming BP (BP) CEO Bob Dudley told analysts on Monday. This is the latest move in BP's ongoing effort to back out of the spotlight since the spill.

BP was slow out of the starting gate to launch its ad campaign after the spill. When it finally got into gear in June, it started by spending at least $5.6 million to plaster its message in major print publications, Mother Jones estimated. The campaign slogan: "we will make this right."

Of course, that comes with a disclaimer. At the congressional hearing in June, BP America president Lamar MacKay promised to honor "all legitimate claims." But BP seems to have done its best to narrow the category of legitimate claims since the spill.

In May, BP's knee-jerk reaction was to blame Transocean. McKay appeared on ABC news, and pinned the disaster on a faulty blowout preventer. The blowout preventer was a piece of equipment on the Deepwater Horizon rig, owned by Transocean (RIG). It's the last line of defense in oil rig safety.

Clearly, there were problems before the blowout-preventer failed. On September 8th BP announced the results from an internal report. The report looked at the causes of the explosion in April 20. Predictably, the report doesn't fault the design of the Macondo well-the only real piece of hardware involved in the explosion that was BP's responsibility alone. BP was the rig operator, however, meaning it had to sign off on everything related to drilling operations at Macondo.

Those were more complicated, BP insists in the report. It says: "[A] complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments, engineering design, operational implementation and team interfaces came together to allow the initiation and escalation of the accident."

The report highlights problems with the cement used for part of the drilling operation, misread tests, and a faulty blowout preventer. BP also hinted that because the other issues leading up to the spill had been so cloudy, preventing similar accidents in the future could become an industry-wide problem.

BP reporting on itself may seem problematic, but investors liked it. Stocks jumped 3.17% on September 8, following the report.

BP just released more good news for investors. Incoming CEO Bob Dudley told analysts at Citi (C, Fortune 500) that the claims filed against the company may add up to less than the $20 billion set aside in escrow.

This may mean that BP thinks it can legally get out of more claims than predicted, probably by blaming them on a tangle of people, equipment, and companies responsible for the Deepwater disaster.

Unfortunately, that's an easy move to pull. It will be incredibly difficult for the government to parse out responsibility for the spill by looking at all the pieces involved in this disaster and assigning blame to the companies responsible.

The government has enlisted Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer responsible for administering the 9/11 Victims Fund and writing rules on executive pay for TARP recipients, to run the BP claims process. But Feinberg ultimately will have to work with the facts on the record to award claims. And right now, it seems like most of the facts are being written up by BP. That, unfortunately, buries and even reinforces systemic and regulatory problems with BP's safety standards.

But there's some hope. If BP's blame redistribution strategy is too effective, they might end up getting what they claim to be asking for -- more government oversight, and much more cautious agreements with smaller oil companies for drilling contracts. Assuming the Obama administration and a likely GOP controlled Congress can deliver on meaningful energy regulatory reform. To top of page