Shell feels chill of Arctic problems

Oil giant's profit to soar as price rises and China booms
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The Independent Online

Shell will announce a bumper set of 2012 results this week, though the sheen of a profit leap will be removed as it updates the market on its problems in the Arctic.

The FTSE 100 oil giant is set to report on Thursday that net income soared by 42 per cent to $7bn (£4.4bn) last year on the back of increased oil production from Canada's tar sands and rising output from its liquefied natural gas operations in Qatar.

Shell also benefited from a strong oil price and increased profit margins at its refining business, amid declining competition after refineries, such as Coryton in Essex, closed. China's buoyant car market will have also fuelled the results.

The full-year figures will come as a welcome relief for investors, after Shell unveiled disappointing results for the third quarter. Profit slumped by 15 per cent after a $354m (£224m) writedown on its US shale gas business, where the fracking boom has significantly increased supply and therefore forced down prices.

However, the City is concerned about Shell's prospects in the Arctic after the company's Kulluk drilling rig ran aground off the coast of Alaska on New Year's Eve. The grounding was the latest in a series of mishaps in Shell's quest to extract oil from the polar region, which has cost the company £3.2bn but has yet to result in the discovery of any commercial quantities of oil.

The incident has raised concerns that the Kulluk might not be repaired in time for the Arctic's drilling season from July to October, further pushing back Shell's timetable for producing oil in the region. The US government has also ordered two reviews into Shell's activities off the Alaskan coast that could push back its exploration programme further.

"These issues will have slowed the trajectory and the market will be looking for clarification on the start-up and timing of the Arctic," said Investec analyst Stuart Joyner.

A Shell spokesman added: "At this stage, it's too early to gauge any impact on our ongoing exploration plans, but with the Kulluk now safely recovered, we'll carry out a detailed assessment of the vessel to understand what those impacts might be."

Another company that has also had some high-profile problems recently – the South African platinum miner Lonmin – will also update the market on its performance at its annual general meeting on Thursday.

Lonmin, which was at the centre of a series of strikes that swept South Africa's mining industry last year, is set to reveal that it produced 115,000 ounces of platinum in the first quarter of its financial year, ending 31 December. This is the same level as the year earlier, but well down on the 196,000 ounces Lonmin produced in the previous quarter.

However, Lonmin's first quarter is typically the production low-point of the year because that is the summer period in which miners take most of their holidays.