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Is BP Sunk?

With the Justice Department pondering civil and criminal charges in the BP oil spill, including investigating the death of 11 employees, investors took flight from the oil giant.

As BP hacked away at a pipe gushing oil at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, investors sawed off 15 percent, or $21.1 billion, of the company’s market value Tuesday.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., during a trip to the Gulf Coast, announced that the Justice Department had launched criminal and civil investigations, adding to pessimism among BP investors reeling from the failed attempt to plug the leaking well over the weekend.

BP, the world’s fourth-largest company before the April 20 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, has lost a staggering $74.4 billion, or 40 percent, of its market value in six weeks.

Given the variety of criminal statutes being explored and potential fines imposed, you would think that the stock crash combined with the sheer amount of penalties (up to $4,300/barrel spilled in Clean Water Act fines alone) could spell bankruptcy for BP. But analysts believe that the company remains safe from such an existential crisis:

A report by investment firm Raymond James nearly tripled its May 4 estimate of the cost to BP in 2010 and 2011 to $7.5 billion. Alex Morris, energy research analyst, said: “Spiraling costs are getting more and more out of control. And we thought this thing was going to be stemmed far before today and we’re still waiting on that.” BP says it’s spent about a$1 billion since the start of the crisis.

But Morris said that is still well within BP’s means. “I don’t think existential threat is the right word for this,” he said.

Brian Youngberg, an oil analyst with Edward Jones, said that after paying out dividends at the current rate of $10 billion a year, BP still has $5 billion to $10 billion a year in cash that could be used to help cover costs. In addition to 400,000 barrels a day of oil it produces elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, BP earns money extracting oil from Angola to Russia, from Iraq to Alaska. The company operates wells, refineries and gas stations in more than 100 countries. In addition, the company’s balance sheet is not highly leveraged, meaning BP could borrow more money if necessary.

BP has more to fear from the perception that they cannot pay back what they owe the federal government than the reality, because perception will drive the stock price into the ground. Even if they have the capital to deal with the billions in payouts and legal fees, the prospect of a felony charge or some other unexpected expense could drive the stock further south. The fundamentals aren’t the entire story here.

Meanwhile, the DoJ is working to make sure every company involved in the spill pays their fair share of the cost. They filed a brief with a federal judge in Houston opposing Transocean’s attempt to limit their liability to $27 million by invoking an 1851 law. Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon rig.

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David Dayen

David Dayen