Kiran Stacey Oil chiefs rail against Washington

Unsurprisingly here at the first Oil & Money annual conference since the BP oil spill, the talk in the corridors and meeting rooms, not to mention the main stage, has been dominated by that tragedy.

In general, the tone has been one of a stoic determination on the part of executives to carry on as normal, although coupled with an acceptance that much of the fallout is as yet unknown.

But at one of today’s session, that stoicism boiled over into outright hostility towards the US government about its attempts to regulate the industry post-Macondo.

David Williams, chief executive of Noble, said the government’s actions had so far been “reasonable”. But his tone was not entirely conciliatory:

So far, regulatory response fairly reasonable. Congress lost interest in it over the election, and hopefully it will stay that way.

And when talking about the lessons to be learned from the Macondo spill, Williams said the first one was not about safety, drilling techniques or energy supply, but that:

We need rational thought processes in Washington.

He was joined in his cynicism by Herman Franssen of Energy Intelligence, who scoffed:

You’re asking for reasonable policies in Washington. I think that’s asking a lot.

There were appreciative laughs for both comments, but if they think they are likely to receive wider support outside of that one room for the idea that their industry is being badly treated, they are likely to be disappointed.

Meanwhile, a fascinating debate opened up during the course of the discussion about how much the industry is likely to change as a result of the BP spill. It is one I have had several times over the last few weeks, but which was well crystallised in the opposing positions taken within this panel.

Bernard Duroc-Danner, chief executive of Weatherford International, insisted:

Macondo is a very very severe scar, and there will be consequences.

He added:

Generally speaking [deepwater drilling] will take more time, be more expensive and will yield, on average, less and later. Even if not impacted by regulations, the perception of risk even on the boards of companies will have an impact.

But his bleak outlook was not shared by Ivan Sandrea from Statoil, who said:

I see limited impact in deepwater supply. Industry will get into the rhythm but long-term consequences for supply will be determined by geology.

It may be the case that independents (who, incidentally make up 60 per cent of operators in the Gulf of Mexico) will find their businesses impinged by heavier regulations and more risk-averse boards. But the consensus I have found around this conference is that big oil will find a way to carry on as normal.

But to do that, they may need to drop the hostility towards the policy makers who will decide their fate.

NB – On a related note, the government is apparently due to make an announcement on the deepwater drilling moratorium soon. Reuters is reporting that a government official has said a statement is “imminent”.