The Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Losers and Winners
The oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico provides a near-perfect onshore platform for political demagoguery.
That demagoguery was evident last week during just a few minutes of channel surfing. Rachel Maddow was on MSNBC denouncing BP and all things oil while Laura Ingraham was on Fox laying waste to all things Obama and the president’s inability to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, President Barack Obama declared that he was trying to figure out “whose ass to kick” for the blowout.
But amidst all of the headlines about ass kicking, top kills, flow rates, blowout preventers, criminal charges, environmental damage, and the future of BP’s finances, it’s worth slowing down for a few moments to consider this question: Who will be the winners and losers in the wake of the blowout?
Lawyers and law firms.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster might as well be known as the Trial Lawyers’ Full Employment Act. More than 200 lawsuits have already been filed and more are certain to follow. The legal fights over the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska lasted two decades. The legal battles over the blowout in the Gulf will likely last just as long. But the fight over the blowout will be far more complicated than the one over the Exxon Valdez. And as the legal issues get more complex, particularly in a disaster whose ultimate cost may hit $40 billion, lawyers always make more money.
After the Exxon Valdez spill, lawyers had one obvious primary defendent: Exxon. With the blowout in the Gulf, lawyers can file suits against BP, Transocean, Halliburton, or Cameron (which made the blowout preventer on the well) or any combination of those companies. And that quartet of defendants provides an attractive target: their combined market capitalization is over $160 billion. Add in the fact that BP could face civil or criminal charges from the Department of Justice and it quickly becomes apparent that the legal battles over the blowout will be employing an armada of lawyers for many years to come. And that will mean yet more demagoguery from lawyers looking to collect big settlements. Example: trial lawyer Michael Papantonio – who was on “Hardball” with Chris Matthews on Wednesday night – calling BP “a sociopath company.”
In the wake of the blowout, more companies working offshore will need more insurance coverage and that coverage will be dramatically more expensive and harder to get. One executive with decades of experience in the deepwater offshore who asked that he and his company not be named, told me that insurance costs for offshore drillers will likely increase by as much as 150 percent in the wake of the disaster. That will mean that insurance costs for a single offshore well could increase from $2 million to $5 million. In addition, all of the companies working on the project could be forced to get coverage. In the past, the executive said, insurers might offer a policy to cover all of the companies working on a rig like the Deepwater Horizon. Thus, before the disaster, an insurer might have agreed to cover all three of the main companies working on the Deepwater Horizon: BP, Transocean, and Halliburton. In the future, the executive expects that each company may be required to get its own coverage. That will mean more profits for the insurers and higher costs for anyone drilling offshore.
Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Petrobras, and the other supermajors.
The more BP suffers in the court of public opinion, the better it is for the company’s fellow oil giants. Yes, that’s somewhat perverse, but BP’s ability to land lucrative contracts in OPEC-member countries, or build refineries in the developing world, or even to find partners willing to do more offshore drilling, will be hurt for many years due to the reputational damage that is being done by the blowout in the Gulf. And the more BP’s image suffers, the better it will be for its deep-pocketed competitors.
The corn ethanol scammers.
On April 28, six days after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama visited an ethanol plant in Missouri during which he declared that “there shouldn’t be any doubt that renewable, homegrown fuels are a key part of our strategy for a clean-energy future.” Those remarks, along with statements being made by officials from the EPA and the Department of Agriculture, have made it clear that the Obama administration will soon approve a move that will effectively bail out the US corn ethanol industry. Over the past few years, overinvestment in corn ethanol production has left the ethanol industry with enormous amounts of excess production capacity. That has resulted in a glut of ethanol and numerous bankruptcies within the sector. The Obama administration bailout will come in the form of a ruling from the EPA that will allow gasoline retailers to blend up to 15 percent ethanol into US gasoline supplies. Current federal rules limit ethanol blends to no more than 10 percent for standard automobiles. By increasing the amount of alcohol that can be blended into gasoline, many of the ethanol distilleries that are now idled due to the glut of ethanol in the market will quickly be brought back into production. (More on the ethanol scam in the losers section.)
There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that Texas, America’s biggest oil producing state, where offshore oil platforms can be seen from almost every major beachfront hotel and condo, is not seeing any oil wash ashore. Meanwhile, Florida, a state that has been fighting offshore oil and gas exploration off its coasts for decades, is facing a major hit to its $60 billion-per-year tourism business due to tar balls produced by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. But what’s bad for tourism in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi appears to be positive for beachfront businesses in Texas. On Monday, the reservations agent at a large condominium complex near Corpus Christi told me that the oil spill “hasn’t affected our bookings at all. It’s been busy.”
Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.
Whether it”s the commercial fishermen in these states or tourism-related businesses, these four states are going to take a major hit due to the damage caused by the blowout. And there’s no way to know just how long the damage may last.
Pension funds and retail investors.
Since the blowout, BP’s stock price has fallen by about 30 percent. “Anybody invested in BP is building a lot of character right now,” says John Olson, managing partner at Pool Capital Partners, a Houston-based energy hedge fund. And the plunge in BP’s market capitalization is starting to worry pensioners and pension managers. Last week, a British money manager estimated that a pension owner expecting 15,000 Euros per year in income could see their income drop by as much as 400 Euros per year. Indeed, BP alone accounts for about 7 percent of the value of the FTSE 100, meaning that the fall in BP’s stock price is affecting stock indexes across Europe.
Anybody in deepwater drilling business.
In the wake of the blowout, public opposition to offshore drilling may have increased, but its easy to overlook the numbers: 36 percent of all domestic crude oil production – about 1.8 million barrels per day — comes from offshore wells. And of that offshore production, about 66 percent comes from federal leases. Any slowdown or halt to offshore exploration and production may be politically expedient, but it will leave a lot of workers and companies adrift. Indeed, the Obama administration’s six-month moratorium on new offshore drilling in water deeper than 500 feet could result in the idling of up to 40,000 workers. And many of those are highly skilled, blue-collar workers like welders, electricians and roughnecks who may be earning $100,000 or more per year by working offshore.
Those idled workers will come from a variety of businesses, ranging from the relatively small companies that provide helicopter transportation to major outfits like Transocean and Diamond Offshore that rent deepwater drilling rigs for rates of up to $500,000 per day. And worse yet, many of those offshore jobs won’t be coming back. Earlier this week, Anadarko Petroleum, which had a non-operating interest in the well that blew out, announced that it will move three of its exploratory drilling rigs out of the Gulf of Mexico.
US taxpayers and consumers.
Every year, energy companies pay the federal government several billion dollars in royalties on the oil and gas they produce from federal offshore leases. Any slowdown or reduction in offshore drilling will necessarily mean a decrease in the amount of royalty payments going to the federal treasury. Furthermore, a prolonged slowdown or moratorium on offshore drilling will necessarily mean more imported oil, which will mean an increase in the US trade deficit.
But those factors are relatively abstract. The real disaster for many consumers will be felt via the gas pump. Indeed, the most tangible result of the blowout in the Gulf will be seen in America’s gasoline supply, which, if the Obama administration allows gasoline retailers to add up to 15 percent alcohol to our fuel, could mean damage to automobiles, lawnmowers, weed whackers, and a host of other products that use internal combustion engines. The US now has about 250 million motor vehicles. But of that number, only about 7.5 million are designed to burn gasoline containing more than 10 percent ethanol. And there is evidence that even that much ethanol may be too much. Last year, Toyota recalled more than 200,00 Lexus vehicles due to internal component corrosion that was caused by ethanol-blended fuel.
But the bigger problems for consumers may come from smaller engines. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, which represents companies that make lawnmowers, snowblowers, chainsaws and the like, opposes the bailout of the ethanol industry. It says that increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline “could damage millions of forestry, lawn and garden, and other small engine products currently housed in consumers’ garages.”
There are plenty of reasons for Americans to be angry about the blowout. Much of that anger is being directly, rightly, at BP. And as with any major upheaval, there will be winners and losers. Unfortunately, it appears that America’s biggest loser in the blowout sweepstakes will be the average consumer.