Spills and Bills

The well is plugged, but the disaster in the Gulf is still seeping through the energy capital of the world, and the question on everyone’s mind is, Who’s up and who’s down?

October 2010By Comments

Illustration by Douglas Fraser

In early August, four months or so after the now infamous Macondo well began leaking oil into the Gulf, I started hearing that this particular disaster story was “over.” I heard this from cynical media types in New York, who did not find stories about chemical dispersants or peculiar rashes quite as sexy as shots of dead pelicans or a roiling plume of oil that looked like an aquatic version of the Smoke Monster on Lost. But I also heard it from oil and gas people in Houston. “The emotion is dying,” one investor relations manager explained to me, which I understood to mean that it was time, hopefully, to get back to making money.

What’s bad for the rest of the planet has often been good for Houston (see the energy crisis of the late seventies), but the hysteria that gripped this place in the weeks after the rig exploded was like the aftermath of a terrorist attack. “BP screwed the pooch for the world,” one drilling executive told me. Quietly, some offshore experts suspected this wasn’t going to be another Exxon Valdez, as it was played in the media, because (1) the Macondo spill took place in a large, warm-water gulf instead of a contained, cold-water bay and (2) the oil was light, as opposed to heavy, crude, so evaporation would occur more quickly. But no one dared to say so out loud, not when yet another oil company had proved itself deserving of the title of public enemy number one.

Houston may be a global energy capital, but within the oil and gas business, it’s a small town. The players all know one another—they gossip in the locker room at the River Oaks Country Club and lunch at the Coronado Club downtown, and their wives chair galas together and hire the same divorce lawyers. And when an energy company steps on its own private parts, everyone in that world braces for the pain.

The congressional hearings that began on May 10 were watercooler talk up and down Louisiana Street, as was the June 14 letter to then CEO Tony Hayward from congressmen Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak that detailed BP’s sins. Initially, everyone hoped this would be BP’s problem, not the industry’s (“We would not have drilled the well the way they did,” ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson told Congress). But now that the story is “over,” Act III of Disaster in the Gulf has begun, and it’s clear that in the energy business in general and Houston in particular the catastrophe has triggered a realignment of power and profits.

The controversy over Matt Simmons’s comments, for example, showed just how frightened some in the community have become. Simmons was an investment banker, peak oil proponent, and media darling (I profiled him in 2008). Then he told Bloomberg News on May 28 that the only way to stop the flow at Macondo was to nuke the well and that, no matter what, BP was finished. He went on to say that there was a separate, secret leak five miles away that was much bigger. This made Simmons a hero among conspiracy theorists in the blogosphere—and a pariah everywhere else. Specifically, his colleagues at Simmons & Co. had had enough and informed all their clients that Simmons’s opinions were not those of the company and that, oh, by the way, Simmons would be retiring as chairman emeritus. Worse was the fact that Simmons was discovered to have been shorting BP stock during much of the time he was dissing BP. Simmons, a maverick who could always be counted on to speak his mind, might have recovered from this, except that on August 8 he died suddenly in the hot tub at his summer home in Maine.

In contrast, the disaster birthed a new media star: silver-haired Robert L. Cavnar, the rare oilman who also happens to be a Democrat who also happens to support the Obama administration’s moratorium on deepwater drilling. MSNBC, for one, couldn’t get enough. “Nobody wants to be seen publicly going against the industry,” Cavnar said about energy executives who privately support his view. “I’m more worried about more guys getting killed.” Cavnar has been in the energy business for more than thirty years—as CEO of a Houston oil company and as an executive at El Paso Corporation—and was himself injured in an East Texas gas well pit fire decades back. But since most of his experience is on land, his commentary elicited some sniping in the offshore world, which probably makes things dicey at the society galas where he and his wife, Gracie, are regulars. No matter. Lately he hasn’t had much time for such things, as he has been racing to be first out of the gate with a book on the spill. Disaster on the Horizon, one of six now in the works, is due in bookstores on October 22. Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy is also writing a book about BP, which would normally give much of Houston’s corporate community chest pains, except that at this point they might hate BP more than they hate Steffy.

Since April, however, BP has gone from being a terminal company to one that is most likely going to survive the spill just fine. Sure, it will have trouble getting operating permits for new drilling projects—and who knows which companies will be willing to partner with BP in the future. But the $20 billion the company put in escrow to help victims of the accident looks less painful when measured against the $82 billion BP has netted in the past four years. And though it was initially suggested that BP’s days of operating in the Gulf were over, it now appears that the oil company might be able to negotiate a deal with the government in which some of that $20 billion will be paid out of future Gulf revenues. In the meantime, BP’s stock price has rebounded: It was trading at $60.48 the day of the spill, slipped to $27.02 on June 25, but was back up to $38.40 by mid-August, very good news for people who bought during the worst days of the disaster.

Anadarko, which, along with a Japanese company called Moex, was a part owner of the well, has emerged in a much better position than BP. Based in The Woodlands, it is one of the world’s largest oil and gas independents. The company’s advantageous perch is due largely to its CEO, Jim Hackett, who immediately after the disaster was more forthcoming with the public and, more importantly, congressional investigators. While Hayward was cagey—in particular about the number of barrels flowing furiously into the Gulf—Hackett answered all questions straightforwardly. Or he finessed them, asserting that Anadarko would absolutely, positively help the people of the Gulf Coast, while making it clear that there was no way in hell his company was going to pony up a contribution to the escrow fund. In June Hackett made a public statement accusing BP of “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct,” which people in the oil industry knew were fighting words—those were the legal terms that would release Anadarko from any liability.

Then, too, Anadarko looks good because some of the other parties involved look so bad. BP leased the Deepwater Horizon from Transocean, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor. Once Houston-based, the company later moved to the Cayman Islands and then to Switzerland (“for the tax breaks,” I have been told frequently). Like BP, Transocean’s global performance has been subject to intense scrutiny in the blog-osphere and the mainstream media, and the picture has not been pretty: business in Iran and Syria, accusations of money laundering for the government of Myanmar, allegations of tax fraud in Norway. And what disaster would be complete without Halliburton, whose cementing of the well has become an issue?

Joining Anadarko on the winner’s side of the ledger, there’s Cameron, the Houston-based company that manufactured the now famous blowout preventer—the BOP, to those in the know. In the days immediately following the explosion, lots of fingers were pointed at Cameron, but further investigation revealed that the BOP had been extensively modified by Transocean workers. (In a wonderful twofer of oil company—and Sino-bashing, the Observer of London reported that BP had ordered Transocean to make repairs with Chinese parts.) Suddenly Cameron looked like Acura instead of Kia—or Neiman’s instead of Walmart—leading to speculation that when the government asks, as it surely will, for new designs to replace all aging blowout preventers, the go-to company will be . . . Cameron. “Cameron will make a ton of money,” Cavnar told me. “I’m rating Cameron a buy.”

Houston-based Apache Corporation, the second-largest independent in the U.S., has profited from the accident by picking up some BP properties at the distressed price of $7 billion. Despite rumors to the contrary, Apache didn’t purchase BP’s troubled Alaska holdings. (Buying BP’s assets is a risky business. “Would you want to testify before Henry Waxman?” one oil company executive asked me.) On the other hand, just a few days before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, Apache bought Devon Energy’s shallow-water assets in the Gulf of Mexico and merged with Mariner Energy, which, as this story went to press, had suffered its own rig explosion, about two hundred miles west of the BP site.

Overall, the small and large deepwater drilling companies—and all the businesses that depend on them—have the most to lose because of the spill. They had just accustomed themselves to living large: Domestic oil production rose last year for the first time since 1991, attributable to drilling in the Gulf, which, until the explosion, was responsible for 30 percent of all U.S. oil production. As Joseph Bryant, the head of Cobalt International Energy, wrote in a Chronicle op-ed, independents working in the Gulf accounted for more than 200,000 jobs, $38 billion in economic benefits, and more than $10 billion in federal and state revenue and royalty payments. (The manager of investor relations for another offshore company told me that those royalties made the state of Louisiana whole, and he wasn’t kidding.) Then came the May moratorium, which put a stop to all deepwater drilling and indirectly put the kibosh on drilling in shallow water, on shelf sands instead of far out in the Gulf. (Just three shallow-water permits have been issued since the disaster.)

“When a plane goes down, you don’t ground the entire fleet” is the current refrain of many smaller companies. Though so far the predicted economic disaster has not occurred, news that stricter environmental controls are coming down the pike accounts for the increasingly ashen faces at the River Oaks Country Club and will no doubt increase the already generous contributions to the GOP. Do not ask local oilmen about the current crop of Presidential Commission investigators. “It’s all tree huggers, eggheads, and politicians,” one told me disgustedly. According to Cavnar, commission members “don’t know ‘come ’ere’ from ‘sic ’em.’ ” Offshore 101 lessons are open to all comers: Jim Bob Moffett, the CEO and co-chairman of the offshore company known as McMoRan Exploration, met Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a rig in the Gulf to show him the difference between deepwater and shallow-water drilling.

In fact, the biggest irony of the catastrophe may be that the businesses that benefit most will be the majors, because they will be the only ones with enough capital to operate in this new climate. In particular, that would be Exxon, which has a safety record that looks pristine in comparison with BP’s. Immediately after the blowout, there was a lot of talk in Houston about the Exxon playbook, a document drafted after the Exxon Valdez spill. The company assembled an Apollo 13—style task force and generated prevention and rescue scenarios for any possible disaster, to ensure that nothing like the Valdez could ever happen again. Subsequently, most other companies developed similar documents. “BP’s got the same playbook,” the CEO of one offshore company told me, “but you’ve got to read it.”

Which brings us to the next big winner in Act III of this story. Houston now has what amounts to a full employment act for local attorneys. Yes, some of the largest civil defense firms have had to sit on the sidelines because of conflicts; they all represent BP, Halliburton, and Cameron already, alas, so can’t take business that pits one against the other. But members of the plaintiff’s bar are, not surprisingly, beside themselves. “The litigation is just getting going,” said Kurt Arnold, who is representing some of the families who lost loved ones when the well exploded. “Most cases don’t get better from the time a client walks in the door. This case gets better every day.” Along with the wrongful-death cases will come a slew of civil cases—the World v. BP—securities claims, criminal cases (even if no charges are filed, lawyers will be hired), etc., on down to the redfish farmer, who can (at least try to) claim damages because of a widespread fear of Gulf seafood.

We may need the money around here. The stricter regulations will doubtlessly lead to higher prices at the pump. And while this might be good news for the boys at the Coronado Club, if the moratorium isn’t lifted in late November as promised or if new restrictions hurt smaller companies to the benefit of the majors, we’re all going to be losers, in Houston and beyond.

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