* Believes Europe GDP will grow less than 1 pct this year
* Expects U.S. economy to grow about 2 pct this year
* To build formic acid plant in Louisiana
* Says damaged Libya pipelines hinder output growth (Adds quotes from politicians, analyst, New York Jets owner; U.S. economic outlook)
By Ernest Scheyder
FLORHAM PARK, New Jersey, May 4 (Reuters) - BASF SE , the world's largest chemical maker by revenue, believes southern Europe is in a recession and expects the continent's economy to barely grow this year, its chief financial officer said on Friday.
The Germany-based company expects Europe's entire economy to grow less than 1 percent in 2012 compared with last year, CFO Hans Engel said in an interview.
"We see Europe moving at two different speeds," said Engel, who is also head of the company's North American operations. "Northern Europe is stronger than southern Europe. There is growth at least in Germany."
BASF's products are used to make plastics, solar panels, automobiles, insulation and other consumer products. With operations worldwide in a range of sectors, its results are a key barometer of global economic health.
Despite the weak European economy, there have been "no major deviations" in customer payments, said Engel, who added that BASF does not do business with the Greek government.
"Payments come on time," he said.
The comments echo those of other corporate executives who have warned of a divergence in the economic health of southern and northern Europe.
Politicians in Europe should consider a "bundle of measures" to solve the continent's economic situation, Engel said.
"It needs to be done in a way that does not choke the governments of southern Europe," Engel said.
The United States economy should perform better in 2012 than 2011, with a GDP growth rate of at least 2 percent, he said.
The company said on Friday it plans to boost North American revenue 5 percent per year through 2020. The company reported 14.7 billion euro ($19.28 billion) in North America revenue last year.
BASF, which developed an environmentally friendly concrete that is being used to build One World Trade Center in New York, reported better-than-expected profit last month as oil and gas drilling profits offset weak sales of plastics.
BASF plans to take advantage of North American shale-derived natural gas by building the continent's only formic acid plant. Formic acid is used as a preservative in animal feed and can be used to make de-icing fluid.
The plant, to be located in Geismar, Louisiana, will produce 50,000 tons of formic acid annually and employ 20 when it opens in 2014.
The company has no plans to build an ethane cracker in North America because of its focus on more complex chemicals, Engel said. Many of BASF's rivals, including Dow Chemical Co, have announced plans to build crackers, industry slang for a chemical plant, due to cheap shale natural gas.
Unlike Dow and other chemical rivals, BASF produces natural gas and crude oil, giving it access to material needed to make its chemicals and plastics and thereby cutting supply costs.
In Libya, BASF's oil drilling operations are currently producing 70,000 barrels per day (bpd) and have the ability to reach full capacity of 100,000 barrels per day, but they are hampered by a damaged pipeline network, Engel said.
"We could quickly bring fields back up to that level, but we're facing infrastructure issues," Engel said.
BASF's Libya operations were sharply curtailed last year after the uprising against former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The company drills 1,000 miles south of Tripoli and relies on pipelines operated by the government to get the oil to ports on the Mediterranean Sea.
The delay has not caused too much frustration on Wall Street, where analysts have been closely watching the situation.
"It's not really BASF's fault," said Min Tang-Varner, a chemical industry analyst with Morningstar. "I don't think Libya is going to be coming back to full capacity anytime soon.
Before the conflict, Libya made up nearly three quarters of BASF's oil output, making it the second-largest foreign oil company in the country after Italy's ENI.
BASF opened its new North American headquarters in New Jersey on Friday. The five-story building, which cost $130 million and houses 1,400 workers, was built using many of the company's energy-efficient products.
The company decided to keep its headquarters in New Jersey because of the state's skilled workforce, proximity to transportation and existing chemical infrastructure, Engel said.
"Did we look at alternatives? Yes, we did," he said. "But with this new building we are showing our confidence in New Jersey and the United States."
The new headquarters was touted aggressively by politicians during a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Kim Guadagno, the state's lieutenant governor, said she plans to use BASF's new offices as a selling point to get other companies to expand into the Garden State.
"This means we have an ambassador to talk about how New Jersey has turned around its economy and is ready to do business again," Guadagno told Reuters.
Robert Menendez, New Jersey's junior senator, said BASF's investment will become a "magnet" to attract other companies.
"This is a tremendous boost to the state's economy and employment," Menendez told Reuters.
The New York Jets football team has its practice facility next door to the new BASF building, and Engel joked he might rent out his office - which overlooks the site - to rival teams.
Woody Johnson, the Jets owner, apologized for not bringing the stereotypical apple pie to welcome his new neighbor, but he asked if the chemical company could help his ailing team, which last year had an 8-8 record.
"If there's a chemical solution," he joked, "a legal one, we'll take it."
(1 euro = $1.31) (Editing by Bernadette Baum; Editing by Gary Hill)