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Shell to Sell Interest in Mackenzie Gas Project

Royal Dutch Shell has put up for sale its minority 11.4% interest in Canada's northern natural gas pipeline project, triggering fresh flurries of speculation about whether it will ever be built.

Data rooms opened Monday morning for potential buyers of a package led by the share in the C$16.2 billion Mackenzie Gas Project (MGP) plus drilling rights, assets and discoveries dating back to the 1960s. The sale offer has also been privately circulated among top international gas interests that are rated as the most likely prospects to make a deal.

Bids are requested by Aug. 31. No asking price was disclosed. The company attributed the action to continuing reviews of its global asset portfolio.

The Mackenzie Delta assets are being sold as a relatively small and expendable arm of Shell's global interests. But the offer documents call the MGP still "an exciting, basin-opening opportunity" to others with larger or more ambitious Arctic development strategies.

The Inuvik-based Aboriginal Pipeline Group, owner of a one-third interest in the proposed 730-mile conduit to Alberta, shrugged off Shell's move as an asset shuffle by the MGP consortium's second-smallest partner.

Imperial Oil -- operator of the MGP and its senior owner with a 34.4% stake -- made no direct comment on Shell's decision. But Imperial -- 70%-owned by ExxonMobil, which also has a direct interest in the MGP of 5.2% as its smallest owner -- said the action makes no difference to efforts to keep on advancing the development at its famously glacial pace. Following approval by the National Energy Board (NEB) just before last Christmas, the MGP is entering a projected three-year period of negotiations on fiscal terms such as royalties and paying for infrastructure such as roads with federal, Northwest Territories and aboriginal authorities.

Opponents of the project cheered Shell's action as foreshadowing the final end of a Canadian pipeline saga dating back to the 1970s, when MGP's first incarnation was shelved after a federal inquiry recommended a development moratorium while native land claims were negotiated. In the territorial capital of Yellowknife a gas project resistance coalition, Alternatives North, cheered the Mackenzie Delta asset sale as "the death knell" for the MGP.

In the Canadian gas capital of Calgary, industry and financial analysts who had previously almost unanimously written off the MGP, described Shell's action as confirmation of the current consensus on the Arctic. The dominant view is that the project's current incarnation, which dates back to 2000, was overtaken by shale gas and low prices. It was widely pointed out that Shell is keeping -- at least so far -- interests in shale development prospects in northern British Columbia and Alberta which have a shorter path to market.

A small, contrarian minority sided with the native pipeline ownership coalition in saying final judgment day on the MGP remains years away and depends on factors that cannot be known now -- such as the true scale that environmentally contested and still technically controversial shale development will attain.

The only sure thing about Shell's action, the contrarians maintain, is that it highlights the value of a regulatory approval. The NEB's favorable ruling, a historic turning point sought by the industry for more than a quarter-century, obviously convinced the international company that it can at last obtain some value for Canadian Arctic properties that were previously dormant due to regulatory uncertainty as well as remoteness from markets.

No prospective buyers immediately stepped forward to identify themselves as bidders on Shell's sale package. But other senior oil and gas producers, unlike Shell, have been expanding their northern Canadian interests in recent years.

Since 2007 BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil have bought thousands of square kilometers of fresh Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea drilling leases in exchange for billions of dollars in exploration commitments. The 2011 edition of an annual northern rights auction by the federal government spread the action into the central Mackenzie Valley region around the Norman Wells inlet to Canada's most northerly oil pipeline. While northern Canada is gas-prone, the discoveries are frequently rich in liquids. The MGP scheme includes liquids extraction and delivery.

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