Profits elusive for Australia’s oil groups

An undated handout photograph shows the Santos Ltd. coal seam methane gas project in Fairview, Queensland, Australia, provided to the media on Thursday, April 23, 2009. Santos Ltd., Australia's third-biggest oil and gas producer, said first-quarter sales dropped 15 percent after oil prices and output slumped. Photographer: Robert Garvey/Santos Ltd. via Bloomberg News EDITOR'S NOTE: EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVING.

The slumping oil price has carved a chunk out of Australian oil and gas majors, with Woodside Petroleum reporting that profits halved in the first six months of the year while Santos swung to a loss of more than $1bn.

Woodside said on Friday that net profit after tax halved from a year ago to $340m in the six months to June 30. Sales revenue slid 22 per cent from a year earlier to $1.807bn as oil prices dropped 46 per cent in the same period.


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Slumping oil prices fell into a bear market earlier this year, weighed down by a two-year supply glut, though they rose above $50 a barrel overnight for the first time since June amid persisting hopes an informal Opec meeting next month will yield a production cap.

Peter Coleman, chief executive officer, talked up Woodside’s operational performance, saying: “Combined with the low cost of our operations and a continued focus on cost reduction we are in a robust position as oil price forecasts improve in 2017.”

He said Woodside would add “significant volumes” from its Wheatstone liquefied natural gas project to the company’s portfolio in mid-2017, and further low-cost production from its Greater Enfield project in 2019.

But the company faces major challenges in finding growth opportunities. Earlier this year it indefinitely halted development of the $40bn Browse LNG project, located off the coast of Western Australia, in which it is the major partner alongside Royal Dutch Shell, BP, a joint venture between Japan’s Mitsubishi and Mitsui, and a subsidiary of PetroChina.

That was the second major blow for Woodside in a little more than three months, after it dropped an A$11.6bn bid for smaller rival Oil Search, an ASX-listed and Papua New Guinea-focused producer.

Oil and gas explorer Santos, meanwhile, on Friday reported a net loss of $1.1bn for the first half, hit by a $1.05bn impairment charge against its new Gladstone liquefied natural gas export project. A year ago, the company reported a $30m net profit.

Excluding impairments, the company posted a loss of $5m in the first half, versus a $25m underlying profit a year ago.

Much like Woodside, Santos’s averaged realised oil prices was down 29 per cent from a year ago, leading to a 6 per cent drop in sales revenue — in spite of production volume rising 10 per cent and sales volume increasing 32 per cent.

Kevin Gallagher, chief executive, acknowledged the company has much work still to do in embedding a new operating model, driving down costs and using available cash flow to reduce debt.

But he said Santos has “made good progress” towards being cash flow break-even at between $35 and $40 a barrel on a portfolio basis, and is “forecasting a free cash flow break-even price of US$43.50 per barrel for 2016, down from US$47 per barrel”.

Following a difficult 2015 in which the company’s share price almost halved as it raised capital and sold assets to bolster its balance sheet, Santos in February scrapped its pledge to maintain or increase its dividend every year.

This week, Australian electricity and gas provider Origin Energy similarly cancelled its final dividend, as it reported a 41 per cent slump in first-half profit.

Shares in Woodside were up 2.2 per cent on Friday morning in Sydney while Santos rose 0.4 per cent, in a broader market that was up 0.1 per cent.

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