New Leases on Life

Crude oil prices, which fell as low as $45 a barrel earlier this year, have since battled their way back to around $60 a barrel (that’s domestic, West Texas crude I’m talking about). With OPEC pledging at its recent meeting to keep its production goals high, there probably will not be a dramatic move to the upside for oil prices in the foreseeable future.

But the best companies in this sector can find a way to profit no matter what happens to the price of crude and refined futures. British Petroleum (NYSE: BP) is at the top of the list.

The company has new opportunities in view now that the U.S. government lifted its ban on the oil giant’s ability to bid on drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico in so-called lease auctions. The ban was triggered by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf back in 2010, where BP took the brunt of the blame.

Crucial to BP’s success on Wall Street is its continuing rehab from that cataclysmic oil spill. The spill not only knocked BP off its game and threatened the fragile ecosystem in the Gulf, it sent drilling in the Gulf way down in the past few years. According to one study from Quest Offshore Resources, the number of active drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico was 37% lower than drilling activity measured before the Deepwater Horizon spill.

BP has been diligent about working with the U.S. government to clean up the Gulf site, after Uncle Sam green-lit BP’s shoreline cleanup plan back in 2011. Despite limited drilling approval from the U.S. government. It wasn’t until this week that BP was given unlimited access to drilling contracts in the Gulf.

Here is how BP explains the agreement with the federal government in a recent statement released this week: “BP today announced that it has entered into an administrative agreement with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on behalf of the federal government, resolving all matters related to the suspension, debarment and statutory disqualification of BP following the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill.  As a result of this agreement, BP is once again eligible to enter into new contracts with the US government, including new deep-water leases in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“After a lengthy negotiation, BP is pleased to have reached this resolution, which we believe to be fair and reasonable,” said John Minge, Chairman and President of BP America, Inc. “Today’s agreement will allow America’s largest energy investor to compete again for federal contracts and leases.”

BP also agreed to a five-year “probation period”, where it must adhere to a set of safety, compliance and corporate governance requirements, which originated in the oil company’s 2012 plea agreement with the US Department of Justice.

What does all the mean to BP’s share price? Plenty. BP had lost an estimated $654 million in drilling contracts in 2013 alone. In a good year, the company can command up to $2 billion in Gulf drilling contracts – a figure that BP should once again reach now that it once again has unlimited access to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Its most recent financial statement showed how much of a burden the Gulf ban had on the company’s bottom line, as profits were down 27% in the wake of the spill. All told, it cost BP $42.7 billion just to clean up the Deepwater spill.

But after the ban was lifted, British Petroleum participated in the U.S. government’s Gulf of Mexico oil drilling auction lease this week – winning 24 of 31 bids it placed. In addition, its cash flow into the Gulf cleanup is withering away – BP only spent $119 million in its Gulf cleanup efforts in the fourth quarter of 2014. With BP committed to adding two more drilling rigs in the Gulf (bringing the total drilling sites to nine), and an annual $4 billion operating budget, the future looks bright.

Helping matters is a hefty dividend payout of more than 5%, and a share price that’s now unshackled from the burden of the Gulf of Mexico cleanup, giving BP – literally – a new lease on life in the oil-rich region. That’s why I see BP’s stock price rising to $50 in the next six months. It’s taken a while, but British Petroleum is back in business in the Gulf of Mexico – in a big way.