UPDATE 2- Santos touts growth prospects with big gas find off Australia

Thu Aug 21, 2014 11:09pm EDT

* Potentially big gas find could be developed with other fields

* Underlying profit up 3 pct, beats forecasts

* Surprises with 33 pct dividend hike as PNG LNG flows

* Santos expects stronger H2 profit (Recasts, adds detail)

By Sonali Paul

MELBOURNE, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Australian oil and gas producer Santos Ltd unveiled a new gas find off Western Australia on Friday giving the company new growth options, alongside its holdings in the east of the country and Papua New Guinea.

Santos announced the Lasseter deepwater find in the Browse Basin as it beat market forecasts with a 3 percent rise in first-half core profit, surprised investors with a 33 percent hike in its dividend and flagged a stronger second half.

Santos CEO David Knox said the Lasseter gas condensate discovery added to the success of its Crown find nearby two years ago and could be developed with other prospects in the area such as Ichthys, run by Japan's Inpex Corp, and Poseidon, operated by ConocoPhillips.

The well encountered 400 metres of hydrocarbons and might confirm a resource of 10 trillion cubic feet of gas, Knox said.

"These are the type of results that really shift thinking and shift understanding of the whole area," Knox told analysts on a conference call after releasing half-year results.

"This is now becoming a very, very hot place to hold exploration acreage."

Santos is operator and 30 percent owner of the Lasseter licence, with Chevron Corp owning 50 percent and Inpex holding 20 percent.

"If you look forward for the company, this is one of the big future options that's available to us," he said.

In the near term, the company's biggest growth project is the $18.5 billion Gladstone liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, which the company said was on track to start exporting gas in 2015, on budget.

Some analysts had thought Santos might unveil a cash return to investors who have raised concerns about the outlook for Gladstone LNG, but it opted instead to step up its dividend on the back of new cashflow from the PNG LNG project, which started exporting in May, ahead of schedule.

"I think it's a clever way to achieve a bit of goodwill from the market," said Mark Samter, an analyst at Credit Suisse, who said the company still faced the challenge of proving the GLNG project can generate a good return.

Underlying profit rose to A$258 million for the six months to June from A$251 million a year earlier, beating an average forecast from four analysts of A$222 million.

The result was stronger than expected as tax and royalty payments were lower than some analysts had tipped.

"We have set the foundation for a stronger second half," Knox said.

Net profit fell 24 percent to A$206 million, hit by writedowns of A$70 million mostly related to its Indonesian coal seam methane business. The impairment had been flagged in July.

Santos shares climbed to a nine-month high of A$15.26 after the dividend surprise and last traded up 3.2 percent at A$15.06, outpacing a 0.3 percent rise in the broader market.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Richard Pullin and Joseph Radford)

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