Image: BP CEO Bob Dudley
Alastair Grant  /  AP
BP CEO Bob Dudley speaks at a news conference at their headquarters in London, announcing it is resuming dividend payouts for the first time since the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil spill disaster.
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updated 4/18/2011 7:13:19 PM ET 2011-04-18T23:13:19

It's hard to tell that just a year ago BP was reeling from financial havoc and an American public out for blood.

The oil giant at the center of one of the world's biggest environmental crises is making strong profits again, its stock has largely rebounded, and it is paying dividends to shareholders once more. It is also pursuing new ventures from the Arctic to India. It is even angling to explore again in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it holds more leases than any competitor.

"BP has a critical role to play in meeting the world's ever-growing need for energy," BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said at the company's annual meeting in London last week.

While some of this angers Gulf Coast residents, it is a testament to some deft handling of the crisis by the company, which after some major gaffes early on conducted a housecleaning in its executive ranks, adopted a careful communications strategy and assigned an outsider to handle victims' compensation claims.

The company's decision to open its checkbook and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Gulf communities, help out-of-work rig hands and support Gulf research also contributed to the turnaround.

Yet BP is not out of the woods yet.

BP employees could be found criminally negligent for the 206 million gallons of oil the U.S. government says gushed from the company's blown-out well and for the 11 men who died when the Deepwater Horizon rig it was leasing exploded. Hundreds of lawsuits and civil and criminal fines could add billions of dollars to its already staggering liabilities. And the findings of several investigations still under way could further damage its reputation.

BP has estimated that the spill will cost the company at least $40.9 billion but is hoping to force some of its partners on the doomed rig to assume some of those costs.

There is also lasting damage in the Gulf, including empty hotels, out-of-work oystermen and fears of a badly disrupted underwater ecosystem. And some of those worst hit by the spill scoff at BP's oft-repeated promises to make people whole again.

"I don't know of one person who has come to me and said, 'I've been made whole. I feel good.' Everything is completely negative from everybody," said Louisiana fishing guide Ron Price.

When BP finally managed to cap its runaway well in July and permanently sealed it in September, the bankruptcy talk was reduced to a whisper and the 24-hour-a-day beating the company was taking on television and newspaper front pages eased up.

By the fall, there was talk that the crisis wasn't as bad as feared and that the Gulf might recover sooner than expected. Then soaring oil prices came to the company's rescue, boosting its bottom line. Now, as Wednesday's anniversary approaches, the oil spill that so riveted the nation's attention is beginning to fade into memory.

For the families of the men killed on the rig, BP's resilience can be downright painful.

"BP has never done anything other than send flowers and three people to Jason's memorial service," said Shelley Anderson, the widow of rig worker Jason Anderson.

BP officials point out that they set aside $20 billion for a fund that is still processing claims for victims of the disaster, though only $3.8 billion of it has actually been paid to date. They also still employ cleanup and recovery workers, though far fewer than before.

Company officials also say they are living up to their commitments to restore the region's economy and environment.

"BP has not — and will not — shy away from its responsibilities," CEO Bob Dudley told shareholders at the company's annual meeting, which was marked by scuffles between protesters and security guards, and investor dissent over the performance of several directors.

Dudley took over Oct. 1 as CEO after the ouster of Tony Hayward, who infuriated Gulf residents by saying during the crisis, "I'd like my life back." Dudley, who grew up in Mississippi and was the first American ever to lead the British company, quickly sought to move BP beyond the crisis, firing the executive responsible for deep-water wells and announcing a new unit to police safety throughout the company.

BP also signed energy-exploration agreements in Indonesia, China, India and Australia. It agreed to pay $680 million for a controlling interest in Brazilian ethanol and sugar producer CNAA. BP also agreed to pay India's Reliance Industries $7.2 billion for a stake in key oil and gas blocks, and announced a deal with Russia's state-owned oil firm Rosneft that would involve exploration in the Arctic Sea, where a big oil spill could damage a pristine ecosystem far less resilient than the Gulf of Mexico. The deal is facing opposition and is not yet final.

BP isn't shying away from the Gulf, either, though it is moving more methodically there amid the political currents.

The first deep-water permit issued after the Obama administration lifted a post-spill drilling ban went to Noble Energy Inc. for work on a well off the coast of Louisiana. BP is not the operator but it has a 46 percent stake in the well. BP also bought out Shell's 25 percent interest in two Gulf fields in December, making BP the sole owner of both.

Spokesman Scott Dean said BP, the leading leaseholder in the Gulf, will remain active in all facets of the Gulf of Mexico oil exploration. The company has applied for a permit to drill one new well in the Gulf and is certain to apply for more.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement said BP's applications will be weighed just like any other company's.

"BP is trying to refill its new-project pipeline with deals in the Arctic, offshore India, and Asia, but the Gulf of Mexico remains a key region for the company," said industry analyst Fadel Gheit of Oppenheimer & Co. "They don't want to push too hard, knowing politicians and environmentalists will be all over them."

Despite the uncertainties, BP announced Feb. 1 that it would restore its dividend and that it made a fourth-quarter profit of $5.6 billion, a 30 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. Rising oil prices are certain to boost its cash on hand and could lead to even higher profits. BP's stock fell 54 percent in the months after the spill, but it has regained much of that since then. Its stock is now trading about 20 percent lower than what it was the day before the rig exploded.

BP was able to deflect some of the criticism by shifting the paying of victims' compensation to claims czar Ken Feinberg, who has absorbed much of the blame for what victims say is a slow payment process.

Overall, the oil giant still has a lot of work to do to improve its reputation. Five Gulf Coast residents who had planned to tell investors about their post-spill woes were denied access to the company meeting, prompting confrontations with guards. Inside, hundreds of BP investors questioned board members about what they said was excessive executive pay and a lack of transparency on safety improvements.

In Washington, lawmakers are watching BP closely.

CEO Dudley still spends a great deal of time reassuring detractors.

"We need to earn back your trust, along with that of state and federal leaders and the trust of Gulf Coast residents and customers," he said at an industry conference in Houston last month. "We are determined we will once again restore that trust, and I realize this requires action, not words."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Timeline: Key events in BP spill, cleanup

Video: A year after the BP oil spill, damage still adding up

  1. Closed captioning of: A year after the BP oil spill, damage still adding up

    >>> now to what brings us here to louisiana . it is hard to believe it's been a year since those first sketchy reports of some sort of big blowout on an offshore rig off the coast of louisiana . the bp disaster as it later become known went on for months, so did the relentlessly depressing underwater pictures. in all 4.9 million barrels of oil discharged over the long 87 days. to this day 66 miles of coastline remain moderately or severely oiled. so how is this area doing now? that is a big question. our chief environmental affairs correspondent anne thompson is back here with answers. here we are again, anne.

    >> hi, brian. things are tough down here in part because of the losses you can't quantify and promises that a year later have yet to be delivered. along louisiana 's coast al bayous, breeding grounds. air canons scare birds from sandbars and marshes where the mississippi river meets the gulf of mexico , and oil lies just beneath the surface. a reminder of the deadly explosion that sank the deep water horizon killing 11 men including shelley andz son's husband jason. for her family life can't be the same.

    >> i do the best i can. one day at a time. i don't normally plan past a week or two. we just keep moving forward as best we can.

    >> reporter: across the gulf folks try to recover and cope. oil production is still down 160,000 barrels a day, tourism losses will reach $22 billion by 2013 .

    >> we're not certain about the future of the gulf.

    >> reporter: the number on most people's mind is 20 million, the amount of the claims fund established to make victims cole administered by ken fineberg.

    >> there have been mistakes.

    >> reporter: he said the numbers reveal some success. 300,000 claims paid for a total of almost $4 billion. most were emergency payments.

    >> why don't you have people helping with the claims processing.

    >> reporter: today's frustration is over his calculation of final payments, a process some say is slow and doesn't cover all they've lost. can you make people whole? will you make people whole?

    >> i can't give you back your heritage. i can't restore the gulf the way it was 100 years ago. i can only do what small role i can play in providing you compensation for your current damage.

    >> reporter: mitch is harvesting oysters again, but seams are slow.

    >> if we can get back to 30% of what we normally did, we'll be -- i know it's crazy to say this. somewhat satisfied, because at least we can do something and pay the bills.

    >> these are the tar balls they're talking about.

    >> reporter: he met with president obama on his first trip to the gulf and listened to his promises.

    >> you will not be abandoned.

    >> just getting our share of it back.

    >> reporter: now?

    >> i don't think that there's much he can do. kick fineberg in the butt and tell him to get off your butt.

    >> reporter: among the many questions, what's behind the fourfold increase in dolphin deaths. this doctor tracks the strandings in mississippi and alabama, 86 so far this year, 67 babies.

    >> it is very unusual. it was very concerning.

    >> reporter: but there are no answers yet. the government won't reveal any results because of the ongoing criminal investigation into the spill. dr. samantha joy of the university of georgia is looking at the effects of a layer of oil her team found on the bottom of the gulf, suffocating the first links in the food web .

    >> you cannot expect those kinds of impacts to be clear and apparent.

    >> reporter: though much is unknown and yet there still is hope.

    >> there's no doubt that it will come back and be as robust as it was before. it's going to take time.

    >> reporter: now, despite that optimism, the people down here who have generations invested in these waters say they need fast financial help so they can stay afloat and give this to the next generation. brian.

    >> i want to talk a little bit more about this later on the broadcast, specifically the oil that remains here. anne thompson with us here

Photos: The BP spill revisited

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  1. Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010. (USCG) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Smoke from the Deepwater Horizon rises high above the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010. The rig sank the next day. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Northern Gannet, normally white when fully grown, is washed to remove oil from the spill at a facility in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Glenn Corbett, of Pensacola, Fla., gets help from his granddaughter Emma Wilmoth, 5, as they joined hundreds of volunteers picking up trash along Escambia County beaches on May 2, 2010. Officials organized the massive beach cleanup in anticipation of an oil slick. (Scott Keeler / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mark DeFelice, executive chef at Pascal's Manale restaurant in New Orleans, lines up Eastern oysters for customers on May 3, 2010. The oysters were harvested from Louisiana waters before the oil slick caused fishing and harvesting closures. (David Friedman / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Alabama National Guardsmen assemble a barrier to block oil on Dauphin Island, Ala., on May 4, 2010. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Rob Lewis, center, and Dexter Strange unload crab traps from their boats on May 5, 2010, after having to dump their catch in Shell Beach, La., due to the oil spill. (Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Conservationist Rick Steiner collects a sample of oily water near Breton Island, La., on May 5, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Some of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead is seen on May 6, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horsman surveys oil pooled between reeds and brush at the mouth of the Mississippi River on May 17, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats some 15 miles northwest of the spill site on May 18, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, center, and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, right, tour the oil impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19, 2010. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Nesting pelicans are seen as oil washes ashore May 22 on an island that is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well as terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills in Louisiana's Barataria Bay. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A BP cleanup crew removes oil from a beach at Port Fourchon, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A sign warns the public away from the beach on Grand Isle, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Oil streaks into the Gulf of Mexico on May 26 near Brush Island, La. (Win Mcnamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An image taken from a BP video feed shows a robotic arm using a wrench during the "top kill" procedure on May 27. The bid to stop the flow failed. (BP via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A brown pelican coated in heavy oil wallows in the surf on East Grand Terre Island, La., on June 4. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A worker cleans up oil in Plaquemines Parish, La., on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A cleanup worker picks up blobs of oil with absorbent snare on Queen Bess Island in Louisiana's Barataria Bay on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tar balls sit on the beach in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 5. (Dave Martin / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil in Grand Isle, La., on June 6. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. This protest at a BP gas station in Pensacola, Fla., on June 6 targeted the oil giant. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A dead sea turtle floats on a pool of oil in Barataria Bay off Louisiana on June 7. (Charlie Riedel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Jars of water mixed with oil collected off Louisiana and Alabama are stacked in front of Gulf Coast residents as they attend a news conference June 16 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Thick crude oil from the BP spill is seen in Barataria Bay near Port Sulphur, La., on June 20. (Erik S. Lesser / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. James McGee vacuums oil in Barataria Bay on June 20. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Out of work fishermen seeking to be hired as cleanup crew talk to BP representatives in Larose, La., on June 20. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. People line up in Pensacola, Fla., on June 26 to protest offshore oil drilling during a 'Hands Across the Sand' event. The protest took place in hundreds of cities across 30 countries. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. With no tourists to hire him, fishing guide Raymond Griffin eats lunch in a nearly empty cookhouse at Griffin Fishing Charters in Lafitte, La., on June 26. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A heavily oiled bird is rescued from the waters of Barataria Bay on June 26. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. In this image taken from video on July 12, oil flows out of the top of the transition spool, which was placed into the gushing wellhead prior to the well being capped. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Oily water washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 26. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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