British oil major BP Plc said it was learning to live with oil at $50 per barrel by slashing costs, after the crude price collapse sent first-quarter profit plummeting and debt levels higher.

Europe's second-largest oil company by market value said its replacement cost (RC) net profit, which strips out gains or losses related to changes in value of fuel inventories, fell 62 percent to $2.39 billion in the first three months of the year.

We need rapidly to bring our costs to a level that is compatible with a $50 world, Chief Executive Tony Hayward said in an email to staff seen by Reuters.

However, profits fell less than analysts predicted, echoing the experience of U.S. oil major ConocoPhillips and Italy's ENI last week and raising hopes the sector was adapting to the oil price slump.

BP's Q1 results reflect a sharper-than-expected fall in unit costs coupled with a strong oil trading performance, Neill Morton, oil analyst at MF Global, said.

BP shares rose 1.4 percent to 490 pence at 0944 GMT, bucking a 0.62 percent drop in the DJ Stoxx European oil and gas sector index <.SXEP>.

The cost of producing oil and gas fell 11 percent in the quarter compared to the same period in 2008 and in aggregate, BP cut over $1 billion from its cost base in the past year.

A spokesman said the continuation of trend will allow BP to shave its 2009 capital expenditure to under $20 billion, compared with the $20 billion to $22 billion BP said in March it expected to spend.

A spokesman added that the cut in the capex forecast was in small part due to delays in some projects.


BP, which has a reputation as one of the most aggressive traders of oil cargos and derivatives in the market, said first-quarter earnings were helped by a very strong performance in its energy trading operation.

The contango in oil markets, whereby future prices for crude are higher than today's prices, helped BP, and ConocoPhillips, play the markets successfully, Morton said.

The companies, and others such as Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which reports its first-quarter earnings on Wednesday, have been buying oil today, simultaneously entering contracts to sell it in the future, locking in a profit, and in the meantime storing the crude offshore in tankers.

London-based BP said oil and gas production rose 2.6 percent to 4.02 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd), the first time the company topped the 4 million boepd level since the second quarter of 2006.

In recent years, most of the large international oil and gas companies have reported falling output and are expected to do the same this quarter.

BP's debt levels rose as it borrowed to fund its generous dividend. Gearing rose to 23 percent compared with 19 percent last year.

BP needs oil prices of $60/bbl to generate enough cash to fund investment and pay its dividend, analysts said, and investors fear a prolonged oil price slump could force the company to cut its 14 cents/share per quarter payout.

The sustainability of such a payout is still questionable, Jason Kenney, oil analyst at ING said.

However, analysts at Cazenove said the current dividend was affordable in 2009.

Excluding one-offs items, which amounted to a net charge of $194 million, the RC result was $2.58 billion, ahead of an average forecast of $2.28 billion from a Reuters poll of seven analysts.

(Editing by Karen Foster and Mike Nesbit)