It had expected to be granted the permit by the Australian Government. But the block was thrown open to competitive bidding and was won by Shell Development Australia, which beat seven other groups to the acreage by committing to 12 wells in three years.
In comments made early last year, Shell vice president of exploration for the Asia-Pacific region Wouter Hoogeveen was upfront about what he thought the block held.
“We believe the Ichthys field comes across the permit boundary into our area,” he said.
“And there are other strong prospects. Our 12 wells will all be exploration wildcats and we plan to begin drilling in the fourth quarter of this year."
With a 400-day lease on the Ocean Epoch semi-submersible, Shell began drilling in WA-371-P late last year. The company has now indicated the Prelude-1 well, drilled on what is believed to be a lobe of the Ichthys reservoir, has made a major gas find.
A follow-up well, Toccata, was drilled in June and July, and the results are being analysed.
It would be surprising if Shell and Inpex did not soon begin discussions on possible development options.
But these could be complicated by the presence of French major Total, which bought a 24% stake in Ichthys last year. Both Shell and Total have operating ambitions and capacity, and are keen to build up northwest Australian LNG hubs.