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* Q4 net 29.55 bln yuan, vs 35.2 bln forecast
* 2012 output growth to slow to 2.8 percent
* Refining business lost $9.5 bln in 2011
* Natural gas importing business also in red
* Shares down 2 pct before results
By Alison Lui and Charlie Zhu
HONG KONG, March 29 (Reuters) - PetroChina reported a 26 percent drop in quarterly earnings, lagging forecasts, due largely to hefty refining losses, and the oil major forecast slower output growth for this year.
PetroChina said on Thursday oil and gas output was expected to grow 2.8 percent this year from 2011 when production rose 4.7 percent to 1.29 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe).
“The recovery of the world economy is growing more uncertain in 2012. International energy supply will remain tight in the long term amidst increasingly intense competition for energy resources ,” vice chairman and president Zhou Jiping said.
The company’s production growth forecast for 2012 was still strong in comparison with some global oil majors, analysts said. Exxon Mobil Corp said its 2012 oil and natural gas output would drop 3 percent from last year.
PetroChina, the country’s dominant oil and gas producer that also owns refineries, posted a fourth-quarter net profit of 29.55 billion yuan ($4.69 billion), down from 40 billion yuan in the same period in 2010, based on Reuters’ calculations.
This compared with a forecast of 35.17 billion yuan, according to Reuters calculations.
For the full year, the state-run company posted a net profit of 132.96 billion yuan, versus 139.99 billion in 2010 as strong upstream gains were offset by massive losses at its refining division. This compared with a consensus forecast of 138.58 billion yuan from 31 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Its exploration and production division posted an operating profit of 219.5 billion yuan for 2011, up 43 percent year-on-year, thanks to stronger crude prices.
But its refining business lost 60 billion yuan as increases in domestic prices for oil products failed to keep pace with strong rises in crude prices. China’s fuel price hikes often come smaller and later than required under its pricing formula due to inflation concerns, leaving refiners saddled with mounting losses.
PetroChina’s refining arm posted heavier losses last year than the 37.6 billion yuan refining loss recorded by Sinopec Corp, even though its refining capacity is much smaller than that of Sinopec which is the largest in Asia.
That’s partly because PetroChina refined more so-called sweet crude than Sinopec, which relies heavily on Middle East crude that contains more sulfur and hence is cheaper, Zhou told reporters at the company’s results briefing.
PetroChina’s main domestic oilfield of Daqing in northeast China also produces oil that is indexed to Indonesia’s Cinta and Duri medium-heavy sweet crudes whose prices gained more sharply than other crudes such as Brent, WTI and Dubai last year, said James Hubbard, head of Asia oil and gas research at Macquarie.
“As for PetroChina’s outlook this year, we may see small growth in terms of output and refining throughput,” said Lawrence Lau, analyst at BOCI Research Ltd.
“But I think the key depends on how fast the government reforms the price mechanism on refined oil products prices and how fast the government introduces the reform of natural gas prices,” Lau said.
PetroChina, whose oil refining throughput rose 8.9 percent to 984.6 million barrels in 2011, incurred a cumulative loss of 21.4 billion yuan in its natural gas importing business due to domestic price controls.
PetroChina’s overseas production was a bright spot last year, with output up 18.2 percent on the year to 120.8 million boes, thanks in part to a contribution from its Rumaila project with BP in Iraq, which produced 1.19 million barrels per day.
PetroChina’s pretax profit from overseas business amounted to 34.7 billion yuan last year, accounting for nearly one fifth of its total pretax profit.
PetroChina’s Hong Kong-listed shares ended down 2 percent on Thursday ahead of its results announcement. The stock lost 4.8 percent in 2011, versus a 26 percent fall in CNOOC’s shares and 9.8 percent gain in Sinopec shares in Hong Kong.
China’s top offshore oil producer, CNOOC Ltd, on Wednesday posted a 29 percent rise in 2011 net profit, matching forecasts and hitting a record, on soaring crude oil prices and despite flat output caused by an oil spill. ($1 = 6.3060 Chinese yuan) (Additional reporting by Wan Xu in Beijing, and Alison Leung; Editing by Sugita Katyal and Mark Potter)