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BHP takes $US2.84bn hit on shale


BHP Billiton has had to write down the value of its American shale gas assets by $US2.84 billion ($A2.73 billion).

A glut of gas supply in the United States and subsequent low gas prices there forced the world's biggest resources company to take massive impairment.

BHP will write down the value of the Fayetteville shale gas assets that it acquired from Chesapeake Energy in February 2011.

BHP has also taken a $US450 million charge on its Australian nickel assets.

The announcements followed a full year assessment of the US shale and Australian nickel assets.

It blamed margin deterioration for the nickel mine write-downs, with the price also down and costs rising.

The shale write-down was expected, with gas prices plunging since this year's and 2011's near $US20 billion ($A19.21 billion) purchase of the shale assets in Arkansas.

The assets are currently loss-making, but BHP says it is committed to spending $US4 billion to $US5 billion ($A3.84 billion to $A4.80 billion) on them next year.

BHP Billiton chief executive Marius Kloppers said that as well as low prices, the impairment charge reflected the company's decision to adjust its development plans by shifting drilling from dry gas to the more liquids rich fields.

"While we have responded appropriately to the changed market conditions, today's impairment is clearly disappointing," he said in a statement.

BHP has not written down its other shale liquids and gas assets in Texas and Louisiana acquired through Petrohawk Energy in August 2011.

The company's shares opened 69 cents, or 2.15 per cent, weaker at $31.33.

BHP's board, and Mr Kloppers especially, have been criticised by some investors and analysts for the shale purchase.

Both Mr Klopper and chairman Jac Nasser were quoted in Friday morning's statement to the ASX defending the expensive acquisitions.

However, as a result of the write-downs, both Mr Kloppers and petroleum head Mike Yeager had asked not to receive remuneration bonuses for the 2012 financial year, Mr Nasser said.

Mr Nasser insisted that the assets, in particular the Petrohawk business, were of high quality and would generate good returns for shareholders.

"However, it is very disappointing that low US gas prices have impacted the carrying value of the Fayetteville assets," he said.

"As today's announcement shows, these are difficult times, particularly for those companies and their shareholders who are being affected by global uncertainty.

"Notwithstanding the prevailing environment, we are confident in the outlook for the United States natural gas market and the role our shale assets will play in BHP Billiton's portfolio in continuing to deliver long-term shareholder returns."

The impairments will be recognised as exceptional items when the company reports its financial results on August 22.

The market consensus forecast is for an after tax profit excluding exceptional items of $US16.9 billion ($A16.23 billion), compared to last year's full year Australian record profit of $US23.6 ($A22.66) billion.