Gas project off Western Australia highlights rivalry for LNG crown

Shell approves world's first floating LNG production plant in Australia, as the country chases Qatar for the title of leading LNG exporter.

Far across the Indian Ocean, Royal Dutch Shell has given the go-ahead to a gas project that could intensify the growing rivalry between Qatar and Australia for the title of the world's leading natural gas liquids exporter.

The crown that is now the Gulf emirate's could be snatched away within the next few years, predicts Colin Barnett, the premier of Western Australia.

"We are closing on Qatar's position," he said at a business lunch this month in Abu Dhabi. "I expect Western Australian LNG [liquefied petroleum gas] exports to triple to 160 million tonnes per annum by the end of the decade."

That would be more than double Qatar's current export capacity of 77 million tonnes per year of the super-chilled fuel.

"It will be interesting to see by 2020 whether Qatar or Australia will be the leading LNG producer," Mr Barnett added. "For sure they will be numbers one and two."

Shell's Prelude project in Australia, with an estimated capital cost of US$11.5 billion (Dh42.23bn), will be the world's first floating LNG production plant.

Announcing the final investment decision last month, the company said the facility would be the largest floating structure in the world, longer than four football fields and weighing six times as much as the largest aircraft carrier.

"Floating LNG will change the rules of the game," said Malcolm Brinded, the director of international oil and gas exploration and production at Shell. "It will allow us to access stranded offshore gasfields that otherwise would be too costly or too difficult to develop," he said.

The Prelude gasfield lies 200km off the northern coast of Western Australia. When the floating gas plant, to be built in a South Korean shipyard, is up and running, it will have a annual output capacity of 3.6 million tonnes of LNG, 1.3 million tonnes of condensate, a type of light oil, and 400,000 tonnes of LNG.

Shell has approved Prelude as more than a dozen large LNG projects are under way or nearing final investment decisions off the coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea. They include the A$43bn (Dh167.71bn) Gorgon project led by Chevron, and the $15bn PNG LNG project led by ExxonMobil, in which Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company holds an indirect interest through its stake in the Papua New Guinea company Oil Search.

Shell said it expected its investments in Australia's burgeoning offshore oil and gas sector to reach $30bn in the next five years. That includes stakes in Gorgon and at least four other gas projects that are under development.

The new Australasian gas projects are targeting fast-expanding Asian energy markets. Those include countries to which Qatar already sells much of its LNG.