* Woodside backs Browse after ditching Israeli gas project
* CEO says under no pressure to make a quick acquisition
* Exploration to play a key role in growth
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE, May 22 (Reuters) – Australia’s Woodside Petroleum Ltd said it was under no pressure to rush into a new acquisition, a day after scrapping a proposed multi-billion-dollar investment in a gas project in Israel.
Woodside Chief Executive Peter Coleman said Australia’s largest independent oil and gas company was counting on its delayed Browse liquefied natural gas project, frontier exploration and acquisitions for future growth.
The company would hunt for projects in the $1 billion-to-$5 billion range and maintain a disciplined investment stance, with the Browse gas project in Western Australia set to be the “foundation” of its next phase of growth.
Woodside pulled out of a plan to take a 25 percent stake in the Leviathan gas project in Israel at a cost up to $2.7 billion, citing “a failure to reach a commercially acceptable outcome”.
Leviathan has reserves of 19 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas, compared with 14.9 tcf in Browse, although Woodside has a slightly bigger stake in the Australian field which would be solely developed for liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Analysts have welcomed the decision on Leviathan, backing the company’s discipline and the move away from an area with high geopolitical risk.
“Their money would be better spent in their own backyard where they have already invested in plenty of infrastructure,” said Morningstar analyst Mark Taylor.
Woodside shares added 1.2 percent on Thursday, hovering near a three-year high.
Coleman said he would discuss ways to deploy the cash earmarked for Leviathan with Woodside’s board, including a possible return to shareholders, but played down the prospect of big acquisitions, saying they rarely add value.
“If I want to take the sugar pill, we can go buy volume growth and I’ll dress it up for you and I’ll tell you how good it is. But if you really want to focus on value, then it’s a hard road,” he told an investor briefing in Sydney.
Woodside, which competes with companies like Anadarko Petroleum, BG, ConocoPhillips and Norway’s Statoil, had been actively looking at other options for spending the funds, but would not rush into any acquisition just to boost production volumes.
“I don’t feel in any way obliged to act swiftly on those just to simply grow,” Coleman said.
An investment decision on Browse is expected in 2015, after Woodside and its partners dropped plans last year to build a $45 billion LNG plant on land and opted to study a floating LNG plant, using partner Royal Dutch Shell’s Prelude FLNG plant as a model.
Coleman said growth, whether through discoveries or acquisitions, would most likely come from emerging oil and gas provinces, such as East Africa, Myanmar and the promising Porcupine Basin off Ireland, where it has acreage.
Woodside is making a big push into exploration, aiming to spend around $650 million a year hunting in unexplored basins and build up oil reserves to balance its strong gas reserves.
Coleman, who took over the top job at Woodside in 2011, said exploration work had dropped off at the company to its detriment.
“Clearly we need to be a better explorer,” he said.
(Reporting by James Regan and Sonali Paul; Editing by Richard Pullin)