Conoco, Origin Target Year-End Decision on $31 Billion Australian Project

Origin Energy Ltd., a partner with ConocoPhillips in a A$35 billion ($31 billion) Australian gas venture, said it aims to make a decision to approve the project in December and may discuss collaboration with rivals.

The perception a year ago was that the Australia Pacific LNG development was “substantially behind” projects proposed by BG Group Plc and Santos Ltd. in gaining regulatory approvals, Managing Director Grant King said. “Today that gap has closed,” he said on a conference call after Origin reported a 10 percent increase in full-year underlying profit.

Santos and BG, like Sydney-based Origin and ConocoPhillips, are due to decide this year whether to build projects in Queensland that will convert gas extracted from coal seams into liquid form. Royal Dutch Shell Plc also plans a neighboring LNG venture, one of more than a dozen in the country targeting an increase in Asian demand for cleaner-burning fuel.

Origin, Australia’s second-largest electricity and gas retailer, has reserves to support two production units and expects federal and state approvals in the fourth quarter, before a final investment decision by the end of the year, it said today. The project also depends on signing customers.

Origin and Houston-based ConocoPhillips may struggle to sell enough fuel this year to justify two units and may face delays in gaining Australian government approval after the Aug. 21 election produced a deadlock, said John Hirjee, an analyst at Deutsche Bank in Melbourne.

‘Challenging’ Target

Hirjee said Origin and ConocoPhillips, the third-largest U.S. oil company, may make an investment decision as late as mid-2011. “It’s going to be challenging to get sufficient volume to trigger an FID on two trains.”

Origin fell 1.9 percent to A$15.31 by the market’s 4:10 p.m. close in Sydney, compared with a 1.1 percent drop in the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index.

First production is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2014, Origin said. LNG projects starting in 2015 are “well placed” to meet a forecast rise in demand, King said. While significant amounts of LNG have reached the market in recent years, limited capacity will be added in the next five years, he said.

With the Queensland coal-seam-gas-to-LNG proposals targeting investment decisions before the end of 2010, Origin said the timing is favorable for talks about collaboration between projects.

Gas for BG

“If there ever was going to be a time for those discussions, it would be now,” King said in an interview in Sydney. “It would be disingenuous of me to say the time has come and then not to participate.”

King declined to be specific about what sort of collaboration the companies may discuss to try to make the projects more profitable or say whether Origin is currently in talks with other LNG project operators.

Analysts including Nik Burns of RBS Morgans in Melbourne have said the companies may merge their projects to improve returns, and Fitch Ratings said in May that the developers may opt to share pipelines and jetties.

ConocoPhillips and Origin in February agreed to sell gas to BG’s venture. The fuel will come from fields jointly owned with BG, and sales would begin in 2014, after BG’s project moves into operation.

Shell-Santos

Santos may agree to collaborate with Shell, Macquarie Group Ltd.’s Sydney-based analyst Adrian Wood wrote in an Aug. 9 note. Wood said he didn’t expect any deal with Shell until September.

The BG and Santos ventures already have Queensland state approval and are awaiting Australian government clearance. Environment Minister Peter Garrett deferred the decision in July, extending his review until Oct. 11. The election result makes it unclear when the government will approve the projects, King said.

BG, the U.K.’s third-largest gas producer, agreed in March to sell fuel from its Australian project to Tokyo Gas Co. China National Offshore Oil Corp. has also agreed to buy BG’s LNG. Santos, partnering with Petroliam Nasional Bhd., has said it is in talks to find customers for their Gladstone LNG development.

Origin said today underlying profit rose to A$585 million in the 12 months ended June 30, from A$530 million. It declared a final dividend of 25 Australian cents a share, unchanged from a year earlier.

Net income fell after a gain in the previous year from the sale of a stake in the Queensland gas assets to ConocoPhillips, dropping to A$612 million from A$6.9 billion, Sydney-based Origin said in a statement to the Australian stock exchange.

Origin expects underlying profit to rise by 15 percent in the 2011 financial year and underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization to increase by about 35 percent, “based on current market conditions,” it said.

The Aug. 21 vote was Australia’s closest election in 70 years. Labor Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott of the Liberal-National coalition are fighting to woo a handful of independent lawmakers that will enable one of them to form a government.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Paton in Sydney at jpaton4@bloomberg.net

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