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Monaco : Reinsurers float $20 billion plan for BP-type blowout

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A scheme floated here at an annual meeting of giants in the insurance industry could come up with a 20-billion-dollar insurance payout if an oil rig blows up, kills people and spreads pollution.

By comparison, British oil group BP estimates that the direct civil costs of dealing with the fatal explosion of its Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico and ensuing pollution could amount to about 32 billion dollars (24.8 billion Euro).

BP, in common with some other oil companies, had switched to insuring itself, on the basis that the insurance premiums saved would match any eventual disaster costs. But as the pollution spread, and the potential liability looked like being almost limitless, there was even talk that BP might need state support to avert bankruptcy.

Now the crisis has passed and BP has survived, but the costs still mount. The BP drama is making oil giants reflect on their insurance strategies and whether to revamp their own mutual insurance fund.

It has also set the reinsurance industry thinking. Reinsurers take on part of big risks underwritten by front-line insurance companies which need to spread and thereby dilute their own exposure. These two sides of the industry meet in September each year to negotiate the terms on which they will do business with each other next year.

This annual meeting has been held in Monaco from Sunday to Tuesday against a background of oversupply of services by the reinsurers, and consequent pressure from insurers on them to keep their prices down.

In this context, the leading reinsurer in the world, Munich Re of Germany, has stepped in here with a proposal for the insurance and reinsurance industries to create policies for oil rigs which would pay up to 20 billion dollars for damage from an incident. Munich Re used the example of the BP disaster to argue that coverage offered for civil liability in such an event is not adequate.

The company estimated that all policies taken out for a big drilling platform usually add up to coverage totalling 2.5-3.5 billion dollars, and in the case of Deepwater Horizon it put the coverage at about 3.0 billion dollars. Under its proposal, specific coverage would be offered for a particular platform rather than for a client company, as is the practice now, on the basis that this approach would improve management of claims for an incident and payment for damage.

The German group said when it floated its idea on Sunday that it wanted to begin talks soon with big insurance and reinsurance companies to see if the idea was of interest and, if so, to discuss how such policies would work. It said it was prepared to offer coverage of 2.0 billion dollars per platform of the maximum of 20 billion dollars’ worth of coverage the insurers and reinsurers collectively would offer for each contract.

The coverage would insure damage to the platform and also claims by third parties, and would therefore cover the cost of cleaning up pollution, damage to the environment, and lost earnings particularly for businesses in the fishing and tourism industries. Since the proposal is intended to cover only big disasters, Munich Re suggests that the policies come into effect only for claims exceeding one billion dollars.

A senior executive at the company, Torsten Jeworrek, said it believed that the insurance resources were available to provide such coverage. It thought that the cost of such policies would be up to 10 percent of the amount insured. Munch Re is also counting on US authorities to be open to the idea. The scheme has already attracted the interest here of two other leading reinsurance groups, Swiss Re and Hannover Re.

The head of special insurance arrangements at Hannover Re, Jurgen Graber, said his group backed the idea of offering a greater level of protection, and the head of subscriptions at Swiss Re, Brian Gray, said that his group had an “appetite” for this kind of risk. But both companies wondered if the scheme would work if national authorities did not oblige oil companies to take out insurance policies.

And Swiss Re’s director general Stefan Lippe wondered whether customers would be prepared to pay more than they had being doing for such coverage, commenting that they had refused to take out coverage because they calculated that with the billions of dollars they saved, they did not need it. That was the case for BP which had taken out only a small amount of insurance with its own insurance company called Jupiter.

And although several big reinsurers were showing interest in the scheme, direct insurance companies had not yet responded, he said. In May, Swiss Re calculated that insured losses from the Deepwater Horizon incident could amount to 3.5 billion dollars, putting its own liability at 200 million dollars before tax.

Monaco, Sept 14, 2010 (AFP)