BP Plc failed to dispel doubts about its future on Tuesday as its long-awaited return to a dividend payout was tainted by weaker than expected profits and a new charge for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
But BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley raised the prospect of a settlement with the group's Russian partners in joint venture TNK-BP, offering an apparent olive branch even if they were successful in blocking BP's proposed deal with Rosneft.
Dudley said BP could reach a financial deal with its partners, who are trying to stop the Rosneft Arctic exploration agreement, and suggested TNK-BP could get involved in the deal.
BP shares had dropped 1.2 percent to 478 pence at 1100 GMT, recouping some of its earlier losses. But it was still the biggest loser in the blue-chip FTSE 100 index.
BP held out the prospect of long-term growth via new exploration partnerships and a fresh focus on getting oil and gas out of the ground.
This was overshadowed by the court hearing due later on Tuesday at which the company's partners in TNK-BP will seek an injunction to block BP's planned joint venture with Russian state-controlled Rosneft.
Dudley said the injunction might well be granted, but insisted that the company expected to settle the dispute with its Russian partners even if the UK court did block its deal with Rosneft.
Dudley also said he expected the TNK-BP ownership structure to remain the same in the coming years, adding that BP would meet all responsibilities to its partners in the venture.
The company has clearly pinned its hopes on Russia, but the new JV has already gone wrong, antagonizing the TNK-BP partners ... There remains substantial uncertainty surrounding the company, said Dougie Youngson, analyst at Arbuthnot Securities.
BP said it would pay a fourth-quarter dividend of 7 cents per share and 42 cents per American depositary share -- in line with analysts' expectations, but only half of what it was paying before the spill disaster.
The re-introduction of the dividend is good news for investors (even at its much lower level), but it is likely to prove inflammatory to U.S. Gulf Coast senators whose communities are still being impacted by the spill, Youngson said.
HIGHER TAX RATE
BP said fourth-quarter replacement cost (RC) net income was $4.61 billion, up from $3.45 billion a year ago, as a big rise in oil prices outweighed a 9 percent drop in oil and gas production.
Dudley said BP had deliberately declined to issue production goals as the oil group was targeting value not volumes.
Excluding one-off items of $250 million, RC net income came in at $4.36 billion, behind the $5.09 billion average forecast given by nine analysts polled by Reuters.
The net income measure excludes gains or losses related to changes in the value of oil inventories and is comparable with U.S. net income.
BP said the weaker-than-expected results were partly due to a higher-than-expected tax rate.
The company is also still feeling pain from the oil spill, adding another $1 billion to its earlier $40 billion estimate of the total bill. Analysts had recently started to cut their estimates for the cost of the oil spill.
Offering a pointer to future growth, BP said it would sell two refineries in the United States, halving its capacity there, and invest more in oil and gas exploration.
The group said it would increase significantly its investment in exploration and would seek new partnership opportunities. It also said it was on track to meet its target of up to $30 billion of divestments by the end of 2011.
(Writing by Sophie Walker and Alexander Smith; Editing by David Holmes and Jane Merriman)