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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February, 2005, 07:46 GMT
Oil giant BP's global fortunes
By Caroline Duffield
BBC World Service business reporter

Deep beneath the frozen surface of Alaska, BP is drilling for oil.

BP's huge oil refinery complex at Grangemouth, Scotland.
BP has a global spread of production assets
The British energy giant has 13 oil fields in the region, and is thought to have about 18 billion barrels of proven oil and gas reserves worldwide.

It is a far cry from the old quip about BP - that their geologists were brilliant at finding oil, but, once found, did not know what to do with it.

BP has reported a 26% rise in annual profits to $16.2bn (8.7bn), after benefiting from high oil prices.

Takeover drive

"Ten years ago the company was producing about 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil and gas," says JJ Traynor, an independent oil analyst who has been watching BP for years.

"It was very much based on fields in the UK and North America. Today the company is producing about 4 million bpd - with a truly global spread of production assets."

So how did this happen?

Deals and takeovers were the main driver of change. BP doubled its production in 1998 by merging with Amoco, a US gas company.

A tie-up with another US firm, Arco, and then the Russian oil company, TNK, followed.

But earlier attempts to go into Russia had failed.

Strong partner

"The mistake they made was that they had a [Russian] partner who was not as strong as they thought it would be, not fighting their cause," says Mike Richey, editor of the magazine Neftecompass which examines Russia's oil industry

"That's the key to operating in Russia, you need a good strong partner - or 'krycha'. It literally means 'roof'. That was a bad experience. BP had to write down a lot of losses on that."

If they [BP] don't voluntarily cough up some of these profits, then government should have a look at whether there should be a windfall profits tax
Martin O'Neill, MP

But ultimately the lure of Russia's vast oil reserves proved too powerful to resist, and BP's second attempt to break into the market is beginning to pay off.

Meanwhile, BP plans to open a new pipeline, linking the Caspian to the Mediterranean.

It is the first time oil from the Caspian will reach the West without going through Russia.

"This year is an important year for BP's growth. There will be the start of the Azerbaijan-Turkey oil pipeline, and also the build up of production in deep water Angola and deep water Mexico," says Mr Traynor.

"The problem becomes what to do with the cash. We are seeing oil prices of $40-$50 per barrel. BP, along with many of its peers, is putting a lot of extra cash into share buyback schemes, which is tremendous news for investors."

Windfall tax

But not everyone is so enthusiastic.

British MP Martin O'Neill heads a committee of politicians investigating why gas prices in the UK have doubled.

BP chief executive Lord Browne
Lord Browne has transformed BP - who could eventually replace him?
He wants profits from the high oil price put into helping people struggling to pay heating bills.

"What we have seen is people making profits beyond the dreams of avarice. If they don't voluntarily cough up some of these profits, then government should have a look at whether there should be a windfall profits tax," Mr O'Neill says.

But BP's chief executive, Lord Browne, says his company's bumper profits are not solely down to the high oil price.

"The profits are up more than the price of oil is up," he told the BBC. "We have spent many years buying (assets) when the price is low."

Succession question

A recent advertising campaign by BP insists the company is committed to corporate responsibility.

But Athan Manuel, of the US environmental lobby group The Public Interest Research Group - which fought plans by BP to drill for oil in the Arctic - says there is more the company can do.

"One glaring weak spot for the company seems to be safety on the Alaskan north slope," he says. "In existing operations there have been problems with valves and pipelines bursting and employees being injured."

But while BP's financial fortunes soar, one question remains unanswered - the inheritance.

Lord Browne, at 56, is the company's single leadership figure, and is largely responsible for transforming BP's fortunes.

Who, from the board of young directors, could succeed the man who has brought the company through such change?

Guessing games are already under way.

BP's chief executive, Lord Browne
"The profits are up more than the price of oil is up."

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