BHP denies Woodside Petroleum takeover speculation

BHP Billiton Ltd today quashed speculation that it was in the process of launching a multibillion-dollar bid for Woodside Petroleum Ltd. Meanwhile, an Australian state premier said he was directly aware that a number of companies were making moves to take over the gas producer.

According to a BHP statement it knew of no basis for the speculation and that the market was "currently fully informed of all material information."

Takeover talk had been rife  since the largest shareholder in Woodside, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, sold some of its investment in the Australian company. According to analysts BHP Billiton would be a natural suitor for Woodside given it was keen to own oil and gas operations and Australia was keen on retaining ownership of key strategic assets. Shell's 2001 proposal to acquire Woodside outright was shot down by Australian lawmakers on national-interest grounds.

Colin Barnett, premier of resource-rich Western Australia state, said in a press conference at an energy conference in Perth that he was aware of takeover moves for Woodside as well as media reports of BHP's interest though he did not give specifics about the companies involved.

"Woodside seems to be under siege," said Barnett in a speech earlier in the day at the conference. "I just urge you, hands off Woodside."

According to Woodside chief executive Don Voelte, the company continued to discuss with Shell how it would sell its remaining 24 per cent stake in Woodside, but he had no knowledge of a takeover bid. "With the continuous disclosure laws in Australia, we can't hide this stuff," Voelte told reporters.