LONDON–BP PLC‘s (BP.LN) $4.5 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission over criminal charges and claims arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster are credit positive for the company because they clarify the level of the criminal penalties, Moody’s said this week.

Furthermore, the fact that BP has accepted criminal responsibility on the grounds of “negligence” rather than “gross negligence” eliminates the threat of a possible indictment by the DoJ and should put BP in a better position to defend itself in the civil courts, Moody’s said. The plea also reduces the chances of BP being barred from U.S. government contracts.

But although the settlement removes some uncertainty for BP, it isn’t the end of its legal issues.

Civil claims, including those arising under the Clean Water Act, are still pending and the DoJ has said it is determined to prove BP’s gross negligence in the civil courts.

“This could raise the amount of Clean Water Act fines to more than $20 billion compared with the $3.5 billion BP has currently provided for in its accounts,” said Francois Lauras, vice president and lead analyst for BP atMoody’s.

Last week, BP agreed to plead guilty to felony charges and pay $4.5 billion in penalties, including $1.26 billion in criminal fines, stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and unleashed the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Moody’s said that BP’s commitment to pay the fines over a six-year period to 2017 is “manageable” given BP’s cash flow generating capacity and liquidity position, which should be further supported by recently announced divestments, including the sale of its 50% stake in TNK-BP.

Moody’s estimated BP’s total pre-tax cash outflow related to Macondo at $37 billion, or $27 billion after tax credits. This total includes the agreed DoJ settlement and the final installment recently paid into the $20 billion Gulf Coast compensation trust fund.

BP should be able to absorb cumulative costs of up to around $40 billion after tax without any impact on its rating, the agency said. On that basis, Moody’s estimated that BP has headroom of around $13 billion to cover Clean Water Act fines and Natural Resource Damages claims.

-By Selina Williams. (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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