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Company News

UPDATE 2-S.Africa's Sasol slides to 14-year low as U.S. project hurts profits

* LCCP drags on interim earnings, down 74%

* Sasol withholds half-year dividend

* Shares fall more than 8%

* No plans to sell mining business (Adds shares, dividend and sale of mining asset update)

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 24 (Reuters) - South African petrochemicals group Sasol’s half-year profits plunged, sending shares to a 14-year low on Monday, due to problems at its Lake Charles Chemicals project and softer chemical and Brent crude oil prices.

The U.S. ethane cracker project, known as LCCP, has been hit by delays and is costing billions of dollars more than initial estimates. Sasol’s joint chief executives resigned late last year in a bid to restore confidence in the firm.

Shares in Sasol slid to their lowest since 2006 at 193.99, and were down 8.6% to 195.78 rand by 1142 GMT, after the firm posted headline earnings per share of 5.94 rand ($0.40), down from 23.25 rand a year earlier.

“The financial results were impacted mostly by a weak macroeconomic environment, which resulted in lower margins, and the LCCP being in a ramp-up phase,” Sasol said.

The world’s top manufacturer of motor fuel from coal did not declare an interim dividend, and chief financial officer Paul Victor said the company was unlikely to pay a final dividend at the end of the financial year.

“In the current phase we find ourselves, we think the probability of even paying a final dividend can be low,” Victor said, adding that the board was yet to make a final decision.

LCCP HITS EARNINGS

Adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) fell 27% to 19.6 billion rand, with LCCP knocking 1.1 billion rand off the total, and depreciation charges reaching a further 1.7 billion rand.

The cost of the Louisiana plant, which converts natural gas into plastics ingredient ethylene, is expected to reach as much as $12.8 billion, up from a 2014 forecast of $8.9 billion.

Its development has been hit by poor weather conditions, delays and oversights including duplicate credits and procurement back-charges.

Sasol said revenue from LCCP did not yet match its project costs. However, the company expects the facility to generate a profit in the second half of the year.

The group said LCCP’s overall project completion was at 99% at the end of December.

However, investigations into an explosion and fire at one of the units at the LCCP plant in January revealed that a piping support structure within the emergency vent system had failed during commissioning, causing a pipe to dislodge.

Sasol said while no major equipment had been damaged, and the incident was isolated, the unit would not be operating beneficially until the second half of 2020.

Its gearing ratio increased from 56.3% in June last year to 64.5% at the end of the interim period. The group, which began a review of its assets in 2017, said it would not rely on disposals to reduce debt.

Chief Executive Fleetwood Grobler, who took the helm in November, said Sasol would keep its mining business despite speculation it would dispose of its coal assets as climate change pressures increase.

“There was some speculation about the future of our mining business, but I want to clarify mining is a key driver to the integrated coal-to-liquid value chain and we intend to keep it,” Grobler said. ($1 = 14.9945 rand) (Reporting by Tanisha Heiberg; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Maju Samuel and Jan Harvey)

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