Royal Dutch Shell banks £1.5m profit an hour

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The Independent Online

Royal Dutch Shell announced today that it banked profits of £1.5 million an hour, as first-quarter figures again showed the benefit of sky-high oil prices.

The Anglo-Dutch giant said its earnings totalled 6.09 billion US dollars (£3.31bn) between January and March - up from 5.46 billion US dollars (£2.97bn) last year, and nearly 10% ahead of analysts' estimates.

But profits would have been higher if attacks by militants in Nigeria had not disrupted production there and prevented Shell from bringing 165,000 barrels of oil a day to the market.

The aftermath of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico last year also had an impact on daily production, which averaged 3.7 million barrels of oil, to be 3% lower than the same stage of 2005.

The cost of light, sweet crude oil averaged 63.3 US dollars a barrel during the first quarter and has since risen above 75 US dollars to hit a new all-time high.

In addition to the disruption to supplies coming out of west Africa, oil traders are on edge about a political stand-off over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The stronger oil prices helped Shell's exploration and production unit to grow profits by 27% to 3.74 billion US dollars (£2 billion) during the quarter.

Chief executive Jeroen van der Veer said: "Our overall performance was satisfactory despite a series of operational challenges in the quarter, created by external factors in Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico."

Its Mars platform in the Gulf was now expected to reach full production again ahead of schedule after repairs were completed to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina last autumn.

Mars is expected to start production this month and become fully operational by the end of June, the company said.

Shell added that its business producing liquefied natural gas (LNG) enjoyed record sales volumes during the quarter and profits lifted from 476 million US dollars (£259.6m) to 765 million US dollars (£417m).

But the group's division making oil products such as petrol took a hit from lower refining margins, with profits down by a third at 1.33 billion US dollars (£725 million).

In a strategy update, Shell said it was engaged in an "unprecedented level of activity" and planned to open up around 20 billion barrels of oil equivalent by the end of the decade.

The company aimed to bring 50 key projects to maturity, with some starting to produce for the first time this year and others coming on stream over the following three years.

Mr van der Veer revealed that the company was attracted by the "great potential" of oil sands, which have previously been viewed by industry experts as too expensive to exploit but can offset the decline of conventional reserves.

Gases that can be converted to liquids may also be able to sustain the company's ability to produce more over the long term, he added.

But he told investors that these resources may not qualify under rules laid down by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States as proved oil and gas reserves.

This put the ability of Shell to hit its goal of completely replacing all the oil and gas that it pumps out of the ground between 2004 and 2008 in doubt.

"We still have a fair prospect of achieving that target," Mr van der Veer said.

"However, we do not want this target to drive the wrong business decisions, either in the timing of projects, or in the type of resources that we prioritise.

"The industry is seeing a very tight market for materials and contract rates.

"Our requirement for competitive returns means that we will probably hold back some of our longer-term projects, until the supply and contracting environment cools down.

"That in turn makes achieving our SEC proved reserves replacement forecast less likely than it was."

Shell, which plans to increase its production to 3.8 million to 4 million barrels of oil in 2009, added that it expected to spend more than 5 billion US dollars (£2.73 billion) on buying back its own shares this year

This was higher than originally forecast and - combined with the better-than-expected profits in the first quarter - helped its shares to rise more than 1% today.

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