MELBOURNE, April 23 (Reuters) - Woodside Petroleum, Australia's top oil and gas company, will return more than $530 million to shareholders via a special dividend and step up its dividend payout as it has no near-term need for the cash for big new projects.
Investors cheered the capital return, which some analysts had foreshadowed, sending Woodside's shares up 7 percent to A$37.10 in early trade on Tuesday.
The company this month shelved plans for developing the Browse gas project at a controversial location onshore in Western Australia and said it would take at least two years to sign off on an alternative plan to develop the field.
Flush with cash from its Pluto gas project, which started producing last year, and with no new mega projects on the horizon, Woodside decided to return capital to shareholders.
'Given the lead times involved with the growth projects and forecast reductions in the company's debt levels, the Board has concluded that it would be appropriate to pay a special dividend to shareholders now and increase the company's dividend payout ratio,' Chairman Michael Chaney said.
Woodside said it would pay a special dividend of 63 cents a share, worth A$519 million in total.
It will also step up its dividend payout ratio to 80 percent of underlying net profit after tax, a rate the company said it expects to maintain for several years.
($1 = 0.9757 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Richard Pullin) Keywords: WOODSIDE DIVIDEND/
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