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London — Shell hopes to increase LNG exports from its Idku plant in Egypt in 2019 having stepped up supplies in the latter part of last year, its head of integrated gas, Maarten Wetselaar, said Thursday.

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Speaking to reporters following the release of Shell's Q4 earnings, Wetselaar also said Shell sees potential to expand its LNG business through new project approvals and participation in the Qatari LNG expansion.

"We've seen an uptick in gas availability in Egypt recently so we've been exporting LNG and we expect to see that increase further in 2019," he said.

Egypt, he said, is now self-sufficient in gas, enabling Shell to resume more regular LNG exports having been restricted to just the occasional cargo over the past few years.

The rampup of the Eni-operated Zohr field has been instrumental in Egypt halting LNG imports and becoming a regular exporter again. Egypt's other LNG export plant, the Eni-operated Damietta facility, remains idled, however.

According to data from S&P Global Platts Analytics, Idku has exported 12 cargoes since October last year, having only shipped nine in 2018 up till then.

LIQUEFACTION, TRADING

Increased gas availability across Shell's LNG portfolio saw liquefaction volumes in Q4 rise by 3% year on year to 8.78 million mt, with its integrated gas business -- essentially its gas for LNG, LNG and gas-to-liquids business -- seeing earnings rise by 44% to $2.36 billion.

CFO Jessica Uhl said LNG trading had a good quarter and was going "from strength to strength."

"We had good positioning with our existing contracts so we were able to optimize, and we also took advantage of short-term opportunities," she said.

Wetselaar said benefiting from increased gas availability for its LNG plants was the "biggest value opportunity for the onstream part of our business."

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He cited extra feed gas serving the Gorgon plant in Australia, Oman LNG, Nigeria LNG and Atlantic LNG in Trinidad and Tobago in Q4.

QATAR EXPANSION, NEW TRAINS

Shell also remains active in looking at expanding existing projects and taking part in new ones.

In particular, Wetselaar said Shell wanted a stake in the planned four-train expansion in Qatar, taking the country's LNG production capacity from 77 million mt/year to 110 million mt/year.

"Qatar is scouting for investors -- clearly there is a lot more appetite than there is space," he said.

"It would make a lot of commercial sense for us to be part of that development and we will participate and hope to win," he said.

Other energy majors reportedly interested in a stake in the Qatar expansion include US companies ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, France's Total, Norway's Equinor and Italy's Eni.

Elsewhere, Wetselaar said it was possible that the final investment decision on the seventh train at Nigeria LNG could be taken by the end of 2019.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm and it would make sense to expand the plant as Nigeria is not molecule-constrained," he said.

But, he said, "these FIDs are complex from a financial, regulatory and stakeholder perspective, and it takes time to line up all the strands before proposing FID."

Train 7 would boost Nigeria LNG production capacity by 8 million mt/year to 30 million mt/year.

RUSSIA, AUSTRALIA

Wetselaar also said talks continued on the proposed third train at Sakhalin LNG and the Baltic LNG plant in Russia.

On Sakahlin LNG, he said: "If we can secure [feed] gas on good terms we will build the third train, if not we'll spend our money elsewhere."

And for Baltic LNG -- the planned 10 million mt/year facility closer to Europe -- Wetselaar said work with partner Gazprom was ongoing to understand the "technical and commercial feasibility."

Finally, at its Prelude floating LNG project off Australia, CEO Ben van Beurden said four of seven upstream wells were now operational as part of project commissioning. "We are preparing for first LNG," van Beurden said.

Asked whether there were liquefaction issues at Prelude, Wetselaar said only that the company was focused on process safety. "We'll turn it on when it's ready to turn on," he said.

-- Stuart Elliott, stuart.elliott@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Alisdair Bowles, newsdesk@spglobal.com