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Australia's Oil Search First-Half Profit Rises

SYDNEY--Decades of investment in Papua New Guinea is continuing to pay off for Australia's Oil Search Ltd., which said Tuesday that first-half net profit rose by a third. Oil Search is partners with Exxon Mobil Corp. in Papua New Guinea's first liquefied-natural-gas, or LNG, project, which shipped its maiden cargo of the fuel to Japanese buyers in May, about three months ahead of plan. LNG is natural gas super-cooled in large refrigeration units so it can be exported by tanker to places not connected by pipeline. Taking more than four years to build, the US$19 billion LNG facility has transformed Oil Search, once a small regional oil producer, into a significant global energy exporter. Oil Search's shares have risen tenfold in the past decade, partly in anticipation of the LNG project starting up this year, giving it a market value of A$14.4 billion. Rising profit means the company will now have to decide whether to pay out more cash to shareholders in the form of higher dividends, or conserve capital to fund other ventures it is tending in Papua New Guinea and Iraqi Kurdistan. Net profit in the six months through June rose 34% to US$152.5 million, beating the US$141 million average of six analyst forecasts compiled by The Wall Street Journal. Earnings are set to rise further for the full year, given the LNG project had only been operational for around five weeks in Oil Search's fiscal first half, and wasn't yet firing on all cylinders. The company kept its first-half dividend the same at two Australian cents a share, but added it would crank up payouts in the second half after it completes a strategic review later in the year. Goldman Sachs last week predicted that Oil Search would keep its dividend steady, before progressively raising it to A$0.07 for the second half of 2014, then to A$0.19 in 2015 and A$0.22 in 2016. "The appropriate future balance between reinvestment of cash flows to finance high-returning growth opportunities and capital returns to shareholders is being analysed as part of the strategic review," said Peter Botten, Oil Search's long-serving chief executive. Exxon, Oil Search and other partners have probably found enough gas now to expand the LNG project's size by at least 50%, but won't know that for sure until further exploration drilling is completed by the end of the year, Mr. Botten told The Wall Street Journal in July. The prospect of adding new refrigeration units to LNG projects, known in the industry as trains, is appealing to producers because costly infrastructure, such as pipelines, roads and storage tanks, has already been installed at the premises. Expanding processing capacity is relatively cheap, since it is a matter of connecting the infrastructure to the new trains to significantly boost production. Oil Search also owns part of the Elk and Antelope natural-gas discoveries in Papua New Guinea, alongside Total SA and InterOil Corp. A decision on whether to build another standalone LNG project in the country underpinned by those fields will hinge on the results of further exploration drilling later in the year. Write to Ross Kelly at ross.kelly@wsj.com Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires

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