- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

LONDON (AP) — BP PLC said Tuesday it is resuming dividend payouts for the first time since the Gulf of Mexico well disaster and announced plans to sell off almost half of its U.S. refinery business, including the Texas City facility where 15 workers died in a massive explosion in 2005.

BP said a stronger-than-expected end to 2010, in which high oil prices lifted fourth quarter profit by 30 percent, was not enough to avoid a full-year loss of $3.7 billion, its first since 1992.

It raised to $40.9 billion its estimate for the overall cost of the spill. The charge covers the cost of the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers in April, as well as plugging the well and cleaning up the southern U.S. coast. BP said the final total “is subject to significant uncertainty.”

BP, which suspended dividends following the Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April, said it would pay out 7 cents per share, or about $1.25 billion over all — half the amount paid in the fourth quarter of 2009.

“We believe now is the right time to resume payment of a dividend to our shareholders,” said Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg.

“We have chosen a prudent level that reflects the company’s strong underlying financial and operating performance but also recognizes the need to fully meet our obligations in the Gulf of Mexico and to maintain financial flexibility.”

The company’s fourth quarter profit of $5.6 billion was up from net earnings of $4.3 billion a year earlier. However, for the full year BP booked a loss of $3.7 billion compared with a profit of $16.6 billion in 2009.

Replacement cost profit — a closely watched industry measure which reflects inventory gains and losses — was $4.6 billion for the quarter, up from $3.4 billion a year earlier. For the full year BP saw a replacement cost loss of $4.9 billion, compared with a profit of $14 billion in 2009.

BP PLC shares were down 2.9 percent at 482 pence in early trading on the London Stock Exchange but rebounded at midday to be down 0.3 percent.

“The market may be slightly underwhelmed by the lack of a more radical restructuring plan but with Macondo still an ongoing issue it may be too early for BP to implement more radical plans,” said Richard Griffith, analyst at Evolution Securities.

“Going forward the Gulf of Mexico continues to be an issue as it impacts operations,” said Tony Shephard, analyst at Charles Stanley & Co. “Before the Gulf of Mexico tragedy, BP’s strategy for growth over the 2015-20 timeframe was centred on the Gulf where it is the largest lease owner. The Gulf faces a slow recovery in deepwater activity for all participants and further drilling delays are likely.”

BP did not say how much it expected to gain from the sale of its U.S. refineries, which it hopes to conclude by the end of 2012, but said it would honor all its obligations stemming from the Texas City disaster.

It said it had spent more than $1 billion modernizing the Texas City plant, the third-largest U.S. refinery, but noted it “lacks strong interaction into any BP marketing assets.” However, BP said it will keep the chemicals complex at Texas City.

The company said it also hopes to sell the Carson refinery near Los Angeles along with its marketing business in southern California, Arizona and Nevada. The company plans to concentrate its U.S. refining and marketing activity at Whiting, Indiana and Cherry Point, Washington, as well as in its 50 percent stake in the Toledo, Ohio facility.

“2011 will be a year of recovery and consolidation as we implement the changes we have identified to reduce operational risk and meet our commitments arising from the spill,” said BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley. “But it will also be a year in which we have the opportunity to reset the company, adjusting the shape of our business, and focus on growing value for shareholders.”

Meanwhile, BP’s lawyers were in court in London to contest a challenge to the company’s ambitious plans to explore for offshore oil in the Arctic with a new Russian partner, Rosneft. At BP’s request, the hearing was closed and the judge’s decision was not immediately announced.

BP’s current Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, is seeking an injunction to block the deal on grounds that it violates their agreement. TNK-BP now accounts for a quarter of BP’s oil production.

BP’s Russian partners in the AAR consortium, which owns the other half of TNK-BP, on Monday voted against a $1.8 billion dividend payout for the fourth quarter, a move that would deprive BP of $900 million.

In the Gulf of Mexico, BP said activity has been winding down since no significant volume of oily liquid has been recovered from the Gulf since July 21, and 98.8 percent of the waters formerly closed to fishing had been reopened. The number of people employed on the cleanup had dropped from 20,000 to about 6,200, BP said.

As of this weekend, about 91,000 people and businesses had filed for final settlements of claims from the $20 billion fund, administered by Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg. Thousands of people have received some money to tide them over until a final settlement amount is offered, but only one has been fully paid — a $10 million claim which BP called a unique situation.