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Plans to bail-out BP

Contingency plans for a possible collapse of BP are reportedly being drawn up in Whitehall as the oil corporation’s crisis continues in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. If the Coalition had to take the company over, it would blow the governments budget-reduction plans apart.

BP accounts for £1 in every £7 paid out to British pension schemes in dividends. The value of the company is uncertain following the largest offshore oil spill in history, which has wrecked ecosystems and affected jobs in five US states. And the thinking is that the Coalition could not allow BP to be broken up or fall into entirely foreign ownership if it meant that pension schemes would suffer.

BP’s management is apparently touring the Middle East looking for governments willing to put up some defensive cash to protect the company against takeover bids from its bigger competitors Royal Dutch Shell, and Exxon Mobil. You can be sure that more than one of Cameron and Clegg’s people are in there batting for BP.

On Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s largest corporations BP ranks fourth, behind WalMart. The company reported profits of US$21.2 billion on its revenue of US$367 billion last year. So the US$20 billion it has so far been obliged to set aside for the costs of the oil spill wipes out last year’s profit.

What happens to BP affects the entire global economy, and not just in terms of its revenue and profits. BP’s product is as important to capitalist production as its profits. The entire system is fuelled and lubricated by oil. This is why proposals to cap the leak altogether fall on deaf ears. Stopping the flow of oil isn’t on the agenda. Rather than cap the leak BP must scoop up as much as it can.

Despite the rampant destruction, all of the oil producers are intent on drilling deeper, overcoming all obstacles. It didn’t take long for the corporations to get the US Federal court to overrule Barack Obama’s six-month moratorium on all pending, current or approved drilling plans for new deepwater wells.

BP’s shares have been on the rise again after the price dropped by more than a half since the oil began leaking into the ocean, for three reasons. Firstly, the company declared it wouldn’t be issuing shares to raise capital, which would have diluted the share value even further; secondly, the relief well drilling which, it is hoped, will at least help to stop the leak in August is ahead of schedule; and thirdly, they have just begun deploying a new “super-skimmer”, a third vessel at the leak site that is hoped to nearly double BP's capacity to 53,000 barrels of the leaked oil a day from around 25,000. But rough seas are hampering efforts to finish the job, and more hurricanes are threatening as the effect of climate change induced by the burning of that same oil bites.

Oil corporations are the most powerful organisations in the world. So last month’s call from General Electric and Microsoft for the US government to more than triple its spending on clean energy research and development has little impact.

If the rest of BP, already 60% per cent owned by non-UK investors were to fall into foreign hands, the British government’s emergency budget will become irrelevant. There’s every chance that Cameron and Clegg will be forced to follow New Labour’s solution to the bankruptcy of the banks and take BP into state ownership.

At this rate, the state will soon control the commanding heights of the capitalist economy! So much for the virtues of private ownership. It’s not at all indispensable. What remains is the issue of the state itself. A corporate state that functions on behalf of a bankrupt capitalist system serves only narrow interests and we should work to replace it with a network of democratic People’s Assemblies. Then we would see some progress.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
7 July 2010

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