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BHP Billiton US Onshore Activity Continues Shift To Liquids

By Robb M. Stewart Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES MELBOURNE -(Dow Jones)- BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP) said Wednesday that it expects activity in the liquids-rich Eagle Ford and Permian basins to represent the significant majority of its U.S. onshore activity by the end of 2012. "We continue to adjust our onshore U.S. development plans in response to lower prices," the company said in its latest quarterly production report. The step may help ease investor concerns that BHP won't see returns for some time on the nearly US$17 billion it spent amassing shale assets last year and that it may be forced to take a massive writedown on value. The worries have dogged its share price in recent months. BHP's total petroleum production jumped 58% to 56.5 million barrels of oil equivalent in its financial third quarter ended March 31, led by higher natural gas output following last year's acquisition of Petrohawk Energy Corp. and Chesapeake Energy Corp.'s (CHK) shale assets in Arkansas. The Angostura business in Trinidad and Tobago, which produced first gas last May, also did well, it said. Liquids production rose 35% from the previous quarter, contributing 3.5 million BOE, which BHP said was consistent with its shift in focus toward the high-return Eagle Ford shale in Texas. Chief Executive Officer Marius Kloppers told analysts in February that BHP was planning to moderate the number of drill rigs in dry gas areas and increase the liquids component of production to 20% on a BOE basis by 2015. Credit Suisse analyst James Redfern noted that in the March quarter, 14% of onshore U.S. output was liquids, so the company may hit its target faster than expected. Commonwealth Bank analysts in Melbourne said in a report last week that a writedown of the Fayetteville assets bought from Chesapeake for US$5 billion is possible if the shale assets are considered separately, since it has minimal value at current U.S. gas prices. However, they said that a writedown isn't warranted at this stage as the liquids-rich shales offset weak gas prices. "The liquids-rich shales are highly attractive and potentially the highest returning investment opportunity in BHP's capital expenditure pipeline," the analysts said in the report, which valued the shale assets at US$22.7 billion to a book value of US$26.9 billion. BHP said its onshore U.S. drilling and development spend totalled US$2.2 billion for the nine months through March. The petroleum division as a whole was the second-biggest driver of earnings after iron ore during the fiscal first half. -By Robb M. Stewart, Dow Jones Newswires; +61 3 9292 2094; robb.stewart@dowjones.com

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