UPDATE 2-Total eyes operator role in new Australia gas, oil projects

Mon May 14, 2012 2:49am EDT

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* Interested in oil, unconventional gas projects

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By Simon Webb

ADELAIDE, May 14 (Reuters) - French oil firm Total is looking for oil and unconventional gas projects in Australia in which it could take a role as operator, the company's chief executive said on Monday.

Australia is on its way to becoming the world's largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, with around $170 billion in projects under construction. Total already has minority stakes in two of those projects, and is looking to expand, Christophe de Margerie said.

"There are opportunities around unconventional gas and oil," he told reporters on the sidelines of an industry event in Australia.

"We are interested in the opportunities to develop our own activity, I mean by operating."

Total owns a 24 percent stake in the Ichthys LNG project. It has agreed to raise that stake to 30 percent, and the deal should get final agreement within a few weeks, he said. Total also owns 27.5 percent of the Gladstone LNG project.

De Margerie will meet Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Tuesday and would discuss the possibility of Total taking a bigger role in Australia's oil and gas sector then, he said.

Labour costs in Australia were high but not enough to dissuade Total from investing in more projects, de Margerie said.

The most recent cost estimate for the Ichthys project is $34 billion, from an original estimate of $20 billion made in 2008. Simultaneous work on a swathe of energy and mining projects has driven up costs across the country.

Still, Australia's access to fast-growing Asian energy markets and its operating environment made it a good target for investment, de Margerie said.

Projects in Australia helped balance Total's portfolio, he added, which was otherwise skewed toward investment in developing countries.

Recent weak Chinese economic data had led to no pull back for Total in projects focused on Asia's energy market, de Margerie said.

"We are a long-term industry. We don't do things based on one-day this, one-day that," he said. "We know that in the long term Asia will need a lot of additional oil and gas to cover demand. China and others in the region will still need more energy."

IRAN

There was enough oil supply in the market to absorb the impact of international sanctions on Iran, de Margerie said. He declined to estimate how much European and U.S. sanctions would impact Iran's around 2.2 million barrels per day of exports, but said oil markets had already priced in disruption.

"The market doesn't believe it will have that much impact otherwise the price of oil would have climbed to a higher level," he said. "So you have the answer in the market."

Total was the second-largest buyer of Iranian oil among the European Union and Turkey in 2011, according to industry and Reuters estimates, but bought no Iranian oil in March and April.

ELGIN LEAK, ANGOLA LNG

Total would end a gas leak at its North Sea Elgin field in the coming days, de Margerie said. The company was waiting simply for good enough weather to kill the well, he added.

The well is leaking around 50,000 cubic metres a day of gas, down from 200,000 cubic metres a day when the leak first started in March.

The Angola LNG project would start production in June, de Margerie said. The LNG would go into the spot market, he added.

Gas from the Angola project was initially destined for the U.S. market, but the rise in domestic shale gas supply there has stunted demand for imported LNG.

"The shareholders in the project are using their trading strength to find the best outlets for the gas," he said.

Total has a 13.6 percent stake in the 5.2 million tonnes per annum Angola LNG project. Chevron owns 36.4 percent and Angolan state oil giant Sonangol has 22.8 percent. Italy's ENI and BP also hold stakes. (Editing by Ed Davies)

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