Production from North American shale plays will continue to keep natural gas prices from increasing significantly any time soon, Royal Dutch Shell plc CEO Peter Voser told financial analysts in London Thursday.

“Low North American natural gas prices look set to stay, which is a major opportunity for integrated gas products like LNG [liquefied natural gas], GTL [gas-to-liquids] and gas-to-chemicals,” Voser said. “Shell is one of the few companies that gets the full value from integration along the full value chain.”

Last year Shell unveiled plans to leverage its abundant natural gas resources in North America, for LNG exports, GTL and gas-to-chemicals facilities, as well as LNG for transport (see NGI, Feb. 6, 2012). That strategy is delivering results, Voser explained during a conference call outlining fourth quarter earnings.

“We are one year into the strategic targets we set out a year ago and we are on track, despite some head winds in 2012. Our targets are unchanged: 30-50% higher cash flow in 2012-2015 than the preceding four years, funding sustained investment for future growth, and a competitive dividend for shareholders.” The company is planning a $120-130 billion net capital spending program for 2012-2015, including $33 billion this year.

Shell is maintaining strong positions in its base upstream and downstream businesses, “but we want more integrated gas, more deepwater, and more resources plays, such as shales,” said Voser. The company’s strategy has put it in a position where it is capital constrained, but there is no shortage of project opportunities, he said. “I think this is a rather different position than many other sectors in the market today, including our competitors. Strong capital rationing means we can prioritize the most attractive opportunities and re-scope or exit from other priorities or positions.”

However, a short-term surge in North American natural gas prices isn’t part of Shell’s calculations. “If I look at the macro in terms of gas prices in the U.S., I don’t see big moves in 2013. I think it’ll take a little bit longer until it comes back to a range — which we think should be around $3 to $5, or $4 to $6 — where most projects would make sense,” Voser told CNBC Europe last week.

In September Shell exploration subsidiary SWEPI LP agreed to pay $1.94 billion for 618,000 net acres in the southern Delaware Basin portion of the Permian Basin (see NGI, Sept. 17, 2012). At the time of the acquisition the properties were producing 26,000 boe/d.

Shell has had successful drilling results in seven of the 10 liquids-rich North American shale plays it is working in, Voser said. “These are large-scale, contiguous acreage positions and we are seeing initial production rates of over 1,000 b/d for multiple wells. Overall, we were producing around 50,000 boe/d from liquids-rich shale in North America at the end of 2012, with more growth to come.”

Shell’s U.S. plans that would take advantage of U.S. gas also include the possibility of building a “world scale” ethane cracker in the heart of the Marcellus Shale (see NGI, Jan. 7).

The oil major recently clinched a production sharing agreement in Ukraine to explore shale gas deposits in the Yuzivske gas field, which may evolve into the “largest investment in Ukrainian history,” according to the nation’s energy minister. The ministry has estimated that the volume of gas to be extracted from the field could reach 282-353 Bcf annually within a decade.

Last year Shell also said it would invest a minimum of $1 billion a year in unconventional natural gas exploration in China, targeting shale reserves and coalbed methane gas (see NGI, Aug. 27, 2012). Shell also plans to build a $12.6 billion refinery and petrochemical complex in China, which would be the largest foreign investment in the country. In early 2012 a Shell unit inked the first-ever production sharing contract (PSC) in China to use its technical know-how to develop shale gas.

Shell reported 4Q2012 earnings after one-time items of $5.6 billion (89 cents/share) on cash flow of $46 billion, compared with $4.8 billion (78 cents) in 4Q2011. The 15% increase over 4Q2011 was a disappointment to some analysts, who had expected quarterly earnings of about $6.3 billion.

Shell experienced some setbacks in 2012, including in its Alaska operations. On New Year’s Eve, Noble Inc.’s Kulluk drilling rig, used by Shell to begin drilling in Alaska’s offshore last year, separated from a tow vessel on its way to port and was grounded (see NGI, Jan. 7). The Department of Interior then launched an “expedited, high-level assessment” of Shell’s drilling program in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas (see NGI, Jan. 14). Shell had completed its Alaska drilling program for the year in late October, the first time in more than 20 years that a producer had been given permission to drill in the state’s offshore.

At the end of 2012, Shell had 12.4 billion boe of resources onstream worldwide, averaging 3.4 million boe/d of production, and 20 billion boe of resources potential in its active development funnel. The company has about 30 new projects under construction, “which should unlock 7 billion barrels of resources, and drive continued financial and production growth,” Shell said. Oil and gas production is expected to average about 4 million boe/d in 2017-2018, compared with 3.3 million boe/d in 2012.

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