BP Profit Falls as Costs of Gulf of Mexico Spill Outweigh Higher Oil Prices

LONDON — An increase in oil prices over the last year helped BP’s first-quarter earnings, but not enough to outweigh the costs of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But there are signs that the high prices have started to hurt demand in the United States and other developed countries, which could start pushing prices down again. Lower prices could make the rest of 2011 more difficult for BP and other big oil companies.

BP’s rivals, including Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil, are still expected to report strong results when they release their first-quarter performances on Thursday.

But some analysts said oil prices could drop about $20 a barrel in the near term, raising questions about whether such companies could keep up the stellar profit growth of last year.

“Concern about supply might fade, and there is a possibility that the world economy will slow,” said Julian Jessop, chief international economist at Capital Economics in London.

But “the future is still bright for oil companies,” he added. “Oil prices will fall back but remain historically high.”

An improving world economy returned oil prices to higher levels in 2010 after a sharp drop in 2009. Exxon Mobil, the largest American oil company, reported a 53 percent increase in profit for the fourth quarter of last year. Chevron earnings in that period rose 72 percent, and ConocoPhillips reported a 46 percent rise.

On Wednesday, BP was the first of the largest publicly traded oil companies to report first-quarter earnings.

For BP, a higher oil price was offset by asset sales to pay for the repercussions from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Earnings were $5.48 billion in the first three months of this year, down from $5.6 billion in the period a year earlier.

The company has sold more than $24 billion of assets to raise money to cover the oil spill costs. Production fell as a result. Including lost production from the Gulf accident, production fell 11 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier.

BP set aside an additional $384 million for the oil spill in the first quarter, bringing the total to $41 billion.

BP’s shares have fallen 23 percent in the last 12 months, while those of its largest competitors have risen at least 18 percent.

To win back investors, the company focused on exploration and signed cooperation agreements in India and Russia. But its Russian deal with the government-owned Rosneft was held up this year because of a legal challenge from its Russian shareholders. Russia has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer in the world. New oil from the region could play an important part in ensuring sufficient supplies and the future level of oil prices.

Those analysts who predicted a decline in the price of oil said concerns about political tensions in North Africa and the Middle East had increased prices but were likely to fade. At the same time, there are signs that high oil prices discourage consumers from filling their tanks just as the summer vacation season starts in the northern hemisphere.

“The oil price is, to an extent, too high at the moment,” said Christopher Wheaton, a director at the asset management firm RCM in London. “We are at the point at which we get demand destruction.”

Still, oil prices are expected to remain high enough for companies to increase investments in drilling aimed at raising production in the longer term. Exxon Mobil said last month that it planned to spend about $100 million a day for the next six years on new oil and gas projects.

The drilling for reserves in more remote and harder-to-reach areas has increased costs for oil companies as they compete for talent and technology. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill also led regulators to tighten safety rules and delay decisions on exploration permits, often further increasing costs for oil companies.

One year after the rig explosion that led to the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is still seeking to resume drilling in the region’s waters, and investors continue to wait for BP to give a total figure for the costs of the spill.

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