As U.S. Majors Cool on Australia, Japan’s Inpex Sees Opportunity

Japan’s largest petroleum exploration company, Inpex Corp., is looking at expanding its natural gas business in Australia, even as U.S. energy majors Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips scale back their operations in the country.

Both Exxon and Conoco are selling non-core assets to boost shareholder returns and fund more attractive growth elsewhere around the world. Inpex sees it differently, looking to snap up assets to feed its $45 billion Ichthys liquefied natural gas project off northwest Australia, which is just one year into its expected 40-year lifespan.

“There are so many opportunities here in Australia,” said Hitoshi Okawa, head of Inpex’s Australia business, after the company earlier this month announced its 100th shipment from the project. “We’re here for the long haul.”

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Exxon said in September that it was seeking a buyer for maturing gas fields off southeast Australia, while Conoco last month announced a $1.4 billion deal to sell its LNG business in northern Australia to local company Santos Ltd. With Ichthys now in normal production, Okawa is turning his attention to finding fresh reserves to keep the huge project running at full capacity of 8.9 million tons a year.

The Cash Maple field, owned by Thailand’s PTT Exploration & Production Pcl, and the Crux prospect are two options among several Okawa is considering because of their proximity to the Ichthys Field, which is connected via an 890-kilometer (550-mile) pipeline to the LNG plant near Darwin.

PTTEP said in September it was seeking a partner for Cash Maple, while Inpex already cooperates with Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Crux’s majority owner, through a minority stake in Prelude LNG, the world’s largest offshore facility.

Australia is preparing for what it hopes will be a second wave of LNG investment after local firms and global majors spent more than $200 billion over the past decade building enough plants to make the country the world’s leader in export capacity. That effort was led by U.S. major Chevron Corp.’s $88 billion Wheatstone and Gorgon LNG projects, the latter of which Exxon owns 25% in.

Another question for Okawa is whether to double down on the separate Darwin LNG processing facility, soon to be operated by Santos after Conoco opted to sell its share. Inpex already holds an 11.4% stake in Darwin and Santos Managing Director Kevin Gallagher has said he would like partner “alignment” in the Barossa gas field, which Santos has earmarked to supply the Darwin plant.

“That’s Kevin’s aspiration, he’s a good friend of mine” Okawa said, “Of course we think about the importance of alignment but a commercial decision is required.”

Okawa also said he saw potential for collaboration between Ichthys and Darwin LNG. For now, he is keeping his options open as his company seeks to deepen its ties to the country.

“We want to be an employer of choice, a partner of choice and a company that is indispensable to Australia’s economic development,” Okawa said. “Without having the proper awareness in the community and within government, it’s very difficult for us to expand the business here in Australia.”


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