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Total eyes more projects in booming Australia

17 may 2012, 11:15
Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French energy giant Total. ©AFP
Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French energy giant Total. ©AFP
The head of France's Total says the energy giant wants to expand in Australia's booming resources sector, but warns that a lack of manpower and lively competition could contain its ambitions, AFP reports.

On his first visit to Australia, Christophe de Margerie said the nation had enjoyed "unbelievable success" in developing its Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) industry which the government hopes will soon rival that of Qatar.

"If you take all the projects which are in the pipeline, of energy projects, it goes rapidly to something which is close to 80 million tonnes per year which means more than Qatar," he told AFP in an interview.

But de Margerie, who heads the world's fifth largest oil and gas company, said while there were predictions for a second wave of LNG projects Down Under beyond the Aus$180 billion (US$180 billion) already committed, this could be too ambitious.

"I think that people are maybe a little bit optimistic," he said.

"It will happen, but maybe not at the same speed."

Australia is enjoying an unprecedented resources boom, with surging demand from Asia for gas, coal and iron ore driving an economy which escaped recession during the global financial crisis.

De Margerie said this demand was only likely to strengthen in the wake of last year's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan which ruined a nuclear plant in Fukushima and raised concerns about nuclear energy.

"That has increased the demand for gas, and it has increased the need for Australia to meet this additional demand," he said.

Australia's identified gas resources could maintain current production rates for some 184 years, but they could potentially double if exploration for shale gas was successful, the government said this week.

The country is already the third largest exporter of LNG in the Asia-Pacific and the fourth biggest in the world with exports forecast to grow 19 percent in 2012-13.

It hopes to become world's largest producer of LNG by 2017 as projects now under construction come online.

De Margerie said Australia's reliability and proximity to Asian markets made it attractive, though like all developed countries the costs of establishing a project here were higher than in developing nations.

"We are requesting more technology, more efficiency, more safety, more global acceptability -- that has a cost," he said.

"The true thing in Australia, we are a little bit concerned about the capacity of the country because of its limited numbers of inhabitants to bring in sufficient skilled people.

"And again, it's a question of the number of projects that are coming on at the same time."

While Australia's resources sector is booming, local labour shortages have become a real headache with miners lobbying the government to loosen migration agreements that allow large projects to hire overseas workers more easily.

A flurry of energy projects are now being built in Australia, including the US$34 billion Ichthys project, in which Total is a significant stakeholder, which will pump gas from offshore Western Australia to Darwin for processing.

De Margerie confirmed Total would increase its stake in this project from 24 percent to about 30 percent but gave no timeline.

Total is also a partner in the Santos-led project to process coal seam gas into LNG in Queensland state's Gladstone region.

De Margerie said the Australian government, which has warned against complacency in developing the nation's rich mineral and gas deposits, had been welcoming of more investment.

"The message is clear," said the chief executive, adding that his visit to Australia was in part to explore the possibility of new investments.

"We would like to do more if possible; we are not going to invent things," de Margerie said.

"But I mean we have the technology, we have the financial capability. And this time, if possible, as an operator, not just as a partner."

While further investments would most likely be in LNG, he was not ruling out other options, but added his first priority was existing projects.

"The idea was not to come to say, 'OK, I'm coming to sign'," he said of his visit. "No, it doesn't work like this."

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