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GDF Suez Backs Away from Australian Floating LNG Project

SYDNEY--GDF Suez SA (GSZ.FR) and Santos Ltd. (STO.AU) backed away from a multibillion dollar plan to develop natural gas fields offshore Australia using untested floating liquefied natural gas technology. A floating LNG project "doesn't currently meet the companies" commercial requirements", GDF Suez and Santos said in separate statements Thursday. They would now look at alternative development options, including piping gas to onshore processing facilities in Darwin. Vessels that can convert natural gas to a liquid at sea have long captured the imagination of some of the world's biggest energy companies because of what they promise: the ability to tap reserves of natural gas stranded hundreds of miles from shore. They believe the technology would help lower costs by eliminating a need for pipelines and clearance of a large plot of land. Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSA) approved construction of the world's first floating LNG vessel in 2011 to process gas from the Prelude field, also located off Australia's northern coast. The giant vessel--longer than four football fields when laid end to end--is being built in a South Korean shipyard and is scheduled to start producing gas in 2016. ExxonMobil Corp. (XOM) and BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP) are also considering using floating LNG to develop remote gas fields. Budget overruns at several other LNG developments in Australia have underscored the risks for international energy companies weighing new projects. Woodside Petroleum Ltd. (WPL.AU) last year shelved plans to build an onshore terminal to process natural gas from its Browse resource in Western Australia state because it wasn't commercially viable. GDF Suez in 2010 paid Santos up to US$370 million to join the Bonaparte LNG project. The deal included an upfront cash payment of US$200 million for 60% of the Petrel, Tern and Frigate gas fields in the Bonaparte Basin, located around 170 kilometers from shore. The company agreed to pay Santos an additional US$170 million when a final investment decision was made on the proposed floating LNG facility, which would process natural gas from the three fields. Santos was previously aiming to begin construction in 2014, with delivery of first cargoes by 2018. Write to Ross Kelly at ross.kelly@wsj.com Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires

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