HOUSTON -- Huge opportunities are beckoning in Australia for American E&P companies, speakers from both countries said at the 6th annual energy conference of the Australian American Chamber of Commerce in Houston.
“Australians relish the opportunity to show the rest of the world how we do things,” says Catherine Tanna, chairman, BG Australia, a unit of BG Group Plc. (LON: BG) “The U.S. is the largest foreign investor in Australia, and in turn we are the ninth-largest proprietor of investment into the U.S,” she said, reflecting the close business relationships between the two nations.
Chris Greig, a professor at the University of Queensland and a member of the school’s Queensland Energy Initiative, compared the energy profiles of the two countries. Despite vast natural gas resources, Australia still gets 75% of its electric power from coal-fired plants. As in the U.S., there’s a lot of talk about reducing greenhouse gases.
The problem is that policy uncertainty has not encouraged E&P activity. There have been three prime ministers in the past four years and thus, many shifts in energy and climate policy. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd instituted a carbon tax in 2012 to the great chagrin of business leaders; his newly elected successor Tony Abbott has vowed to kill it soon. Abbott’s focus is energy affordability because, since 2005, residential electricity prices have more than doubled, Greig said, whereas in the U.S. they have moderated.
“Energy policy ought to be driven by trade-offs in energy security, affordability and environmental concerns,” Greig said. Security is not the highest priority in Australia, he explained, because the country is so rich in resources of all kinds, which support its economy.
A new energy policy white paper has been ordered by the government that seeks public comment on three big issues for Australia: energy reform, boosting workforce productivity and new ways to maximize export opportunities for LNG. Initial comments are due in mid-February, with a final white paper due in May.
Whatever the challenges, international investment in Australia’s energy sector is rising, particularly for huge offshore oil and gas projects and four world-scale liquified natural gas (LNG) export plants onshore. Philip Graham, Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C), noted that most of the majors have very strong positions across the country, but there aren’t as many small-cap independents involved. That’s changing. He noted the recent news that Houston shale player Magnum Hunter Resources Corp. (NYSE: MHR) just entered a joint venture in the Cooper Basin with New Standard Energy Ltd. (ASX: NSE.AX) to explore for shale gas. The pair already have partnered in the Eagle Ford as well.
A wave of consolidation by the majors occurred in 2008 in the coalseam gas arena and amongst E&Ps producing that gas for the LNG export plants. The LNG end-users from Japan and China came in to make investments in 2012, but since then, M&A activity peaked.
“We think in the next few years there’s a lot of investment flow to Australia and a lot of opportunities for smaller companies to come in and put risk capital to work,” he said, as the focus changes from the mammoth LNG construction projects that are winding down, to more upstream exploration. Buyers are looking to Australia for these reasons, he said: to be in position when a decision is taken for the next wave of LNG projects; and to get involved in early-stage unconventional gas development. That activity is just starting in the Cooper, Perth and Canning basins. For all interested buyers, costs remain a concern.