--Della Martina says it's time to pass the baton at Pluto
--Joins Nexus after 21 years at Woodside
--Follows Kevin Gallagher's departure last year
(Recasts first paragraph; add Woodside executive's comments in 5th, 9th and 10th paragraphs; details throughout)
By Ross Kelly
Woodside Petroleum Ltd. (>> Woodside Petroleum Limited) has lost its third senior staffer since it changed chief executives last year, with the head of its flagship Pluto gas-export project Lucio Della Martina leaving to head up Nexus Energy Ltd. (>> Nexus Energy Limited).
Della Martina was tipped as a potential internal candidate to succeed Woodside's former Chief Executive Don Voelte. The top job at Australia's biggest pure-play oil company ended up going to former Exxon Mobil Corp. executive Peter Coleman. Another internal favorite to succeed Voelte, Kevin Gallagher, recently left his post heading up Woodside's North West Shelf LNG project to lead engineering firm Clough Ltd. Woodside's head of international oil and gas Jeff Soine has also left since Coleman came on board.
Nexus Energy is developing a tradition of appointing big name CEOs after Queensland Gas Corp. head Richard Cottee's brief and acrimonious time at the helm of the small Australian company.
The A$14.9 billion Pluto project is expected to deliver its very first LNG cargo to Asian customers this month after construction began in 2007. A potential expansion of the project has been put on ice by Coleman pending more gas discoveries or completion of a potential third-party gas supply deal.
"As I've mentioned internally, I've spent 21 years at Woodside, having lead the project from its discovery. It was time to pass the baton for the next operational phase," Della Martina told Dow Jones Newswires in an interview.
Nexus, with a current market value of around A$305 million, in January agreed that Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSB.LN) would lead an integrated gas and liquids development at its Crux project offshore northern Australia in a deal that would give Nexus a 17% stake in the asset. Gas from Crux will be fed into Shell's pioneering Prelude floating LNG project nearby.
Nexus also owns the operational Longtom gas asset offshore Victoria state, for which it last month booked a large resource downgrade and related impairment charge.
It also owns the Echuca Shoals exploration permit offshore Western Australia state, located near Prelude and the Ichthys LNG project.
Della Martina said he was partly attracted to Nexus by its "strong board" and said it was unusual for such a small company to have a relationship with Shell and floating LNG.
"They're well-positioned now after a volatile period where the board has guided the company into a stable zone," he said, adding he would also like to "re-invigorate the exploration side of things and the company's growth".
Nexus Chairman Michael Fowler said Della Martina is a top executive who's appointment highlights a "disconnect between the value of our portfolio and our small market capitalization".
At 0335 GMT, Nexus shares were flat at 22.5 cents, while the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index was up 0.3% at 4340.8 points.
-By Ross Kelly, Dow Jones Newswires; 61-2-8272-4692; Ross.Kelly@dowjones.com