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Message: The Falcon play

France's Total farms into central Australian shale gas acreage.

Sydney (Platts)--6Nov2012/137 am EST/637 GMT

French major Total has become the latest industry heavyweight to take a foothold in the nascent Australian shale gas sector, striking a deal worth up to $190 million with Central Petroleum to farm into four exploration permits in the South Georgina Basin.

Three of the permits, which cover about 25,000 sq km (9,652 sq miles) in central Australia, are located in Queensland and one is in the Northern Territory.

Under the terms of the agreement, Total will commit $48 million to the joint venture's exploration and appraisal over the first four years, with Central paying $12 million, the Australian company said in a statement Tuesday. Total has the option to invest another $130 million in stages two and three of the project, which would earn it an equity stake of 68% in the four permits.

Central is to retain operatorship of the permits for the exploration activity, but at the end of the three stages, Total would assume operating responsibility for 90% of the acreage. The remaining 10% would stay under Central's responsibility.

"This deal is an important part of Total's strategy to grow its global gas business," Total E&P Australia Managing Director Mike Sangster said in a statement. "With our participation in the two major LNG projects of Ichthys LNG and Gladstone LNG, Australia has become a core area for Total. I'm delighted with this deal and its potential to add large resources to our portfolio, as well as with the possibility to become a significant operator in Australia."

The farm-in is subject to Queensland and Northern Territory regulatory approvals, as well as clearance from Australia's Foreign Investment Review Board.

Over the past two years, five international E&P companies have farmed into junior players' shale acreage across Australia, staking a combined investment of nearly $700 million. Transactions concluded to date are Statoil's $210 million investment in Petrofrontier Corporation's Southern Georgina Basin acreage; BG's $130 million joint venture with Drillsearch Energy; a $152.40 million deal between Mitsubishi Corporation and Buru Energy; ConocoPhillips' $107.40 million agreement with New Standard Energy; and a $60 million joint venture between Hess Corporation and Falcon Oil & Gas in the Beetaloo Basin.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, Australia has an estimated 396 Tcf of shale gas, ranking it sixth largest in the world, and analysts are tipping the country could be an early mover when it comes to developing these resources. Santos recently started producing gas from Australia's first commercial shale well, in the Cooper Basin.

Total has been steadily building its presence in Australia since 2005. The company has interests in seven offshore exploration licenses -- three of which it operates -- in the Browse and Bonaparte basins off northwestern Australia.

Total also has a big share of Australia's rapidly expanding LNG industry, holding a 30% stake in Japanese Inpex's $34 billion Ichthys LNG project in the Northern Territory, and 27.5% of Santos' $18.5 billion Gladstone LNG project in Queensland. The two projects will produce a gross combined 16.2 million mt/year of LNG and are due to start up in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

--Christine Forster, [email protected]

--Edited by Elston Soares, [email protected]

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