Shale writedown tarnishes BHP’s street cred

August 3, 2012

By Kevin Allison

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Marius Kloppers is right to take his lumps. The BHP Billiton chief executive has waived his 2012 bonus after the mining giant took a $2.8 billion writedown on some of its U.S. shale gas acreage. The hit looks small when compared with BHP’s $170 billion market cap, and wasn’t unexpected. But BHP paid almost $5 billion for the asset just 18 months ago. That’s embarrassing for a company that trades on its reputation as a canny operator.

In February last year, BHP’s purchase of 487,000 acres of Fayetteville shale reserves from Chesapeake Energy was seen as a breakthrough after a string of failed mega-deals. BHP is one of the few big miners to own a substantial petroleum business. Gaining a foothold in the U.S. shale revolution seemed to make good strategic sense.

But the $4.75 billion price tag looked stretched from the outset. When the deal was announced it was already clear that booming shale production was creating a gas glut that would threaten the profitability of wells that mainly produce gas. At the time, U.S. gas prices stood at about $4.50 per million British Thermal Units, down by a quarter from 2010 highs. They plunged to below $2 per mbtu earlier this year. Even at today’s price of about $3 per mbtu, drillers are still losing money.

BHP’s decision to write down the Chesapeake assets suggests it doesn’t see the glut easing anytime soon. Like other gas drillers, it is shifting its focus to the more oil-rich shale deposits it acquired when it bought U.S. driller Petrohawk for $12 billion in July last year. That bigger, more ambitious purchase is not affected by the writedowns.

BHP is hardly the only company to fess up to overpaying for shale. Shell, BG and Encana Energy all took impairments in the second quarter. The 1.9 percent rise in BHP’s London-listed shares following the announcement suggests investors expected Kloppers to bite the bullet.

Still, the timing isn’t ideal. Rising costs and cooling demand mean BHP and other big miners are under pressure to return more cash or else explain how multi-billion dollar growth projects can still make attractive returns. In January, Deutsche Bank estimated that BHP would have to spend about $50 billion to achieve a near-fourfold increase in shale output by the end of the decade. The writedowns will make it harder for Kloppers to make his case.

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