Chevron Corp. said it plans to start early work on an expansion of its 43 billion Australian dollars (US$42.57 billion) Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in Australia next year, in a move to capitalize on rising Asian demand for clean-burning fuels.
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Chevron said it has discovered enough gas offshore of Western Australia state to increase Gorgon’s production capacity to more than 15 million metric tons of LNG by adding a fourth train, or processing unit, to the three already being built. It is targeting a formal decision on the expansion in 2013.
Japan will likely want to buy more Australian LNG to meet its future fuel needs if explosions and radiation leaks at the reactors damaged by Friday’s earthquake and tsunami trigger a domestic backlash against nuclear power, industry executives and analysts say.
Chevron has 80 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the Asia-Pacific region, much of it offshore of Australia.
Japanese customers underpin Chevron’s gas sales commitments from Gorgon’s first phase. China, which is building several LNG receiving terminals along its coastline, and India are also vying for Australian LNG supply.
However, expanding Gorgon would heap extra pressure on a labor market that is tightening as rival Australian gas export projects get underway or target expansions within the next five years. These include several proposed plants in Queensland state that will convert coal seam gas to LNG using technology previously untried on a large scale.
Australia is set to leapfrog Qatar as the world’s biggest LNG supplier in the future, with the potential to produce over 100 million tons of LNG annually if all projects on the drawing board are built, engineering contractor WorleyParsons Ltd. said recently.
San Ramon, California-based Chevron expects to commence front-end engineering and design, or FEED, work on Gorgon’s fourth LNG train in 2012. This planning work is important because it enables companies to get a clearer view on how much projects will cost to build and whether they will be feasible.
“We found enough gas for this expansion and plan to enter FEED in 2012,” Jim Blackwell, Chevron Executive Vice President of Technology and Services, said late Monday in a meeting with analysts.
Attracted by Australia’s stable regulatory regime, large gas reserves and proximity to Asian buyers, international energy companies are spending billions of dollars developing natural gas terminals on the country’s coastline
Chevron signed off on Gorgon’s initial phase in September 2009 and plans to ship its first LNG cargo from the project – located on the nature reserve of Barrow Island – in 2014.
The U.S. oil giant owns nearly 50% of the Gorgon project, which also counts ExxonMobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC as major investors.
Chevron and its partners may have an advantage over rival projects in keeping down labor costs as Gorgon’s first phase is due for completion in 2014, and many workers could be kept on site to work on the expansion.
In addition to the Gorgon project, Chevron is separately developing the Wheatstone project on the Western Australian coast. It hopes to make a decision on investing in the first, two-train phase of that LNG development this year.
Wheatstone is “well positioned for train three and further expansions,” Mr. Blackwell said.
Rival developments in Australia include a planned expansion of Woodside Petroleum Ltd.’s Pluto project, four coal seam gas-to-LNG projects in Queensland and Inpex Corp.’s Ichthys joint venture with Total SA in Australia’s Northern Territory
In a sign that executives are seeing opportunities to sell more LNG to Japan in the wake of the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facilities, Origin Energy Ltd. Chief Executive Grant King said on Tuesday that LNG is Japan’s “balancing fuel.”
It is “easy to understand that people might think that this (incident) would change the long-term fuel mix in Japan,” Mr. King said.
Origin is planning a 35 billion Australian dollar (US$34.7 billion) gas export terminal in Queensland in partnership with ConocoPhillips. The venture signed up China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., better known as Sinopec Corp., as its first customer last month.
Nomura analyst Xavier M. Grunauer said potential changes to Japanese energy policy could spark a move away from nuclear power and create new long-term demand for LNG.
“We note that new demand from Japan would be largely unexpected and could supply a new push to Australia’s LNG projects yet to be sanctioned,” Mr. Grunauer said.