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Brazil birth defects cases rising

The cases of babies born with unusually small heads continue to rise in Brazil where researchers say they have found new evidence linking the increase to the Zika virus spreading through the Americas.

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The Ministry of Health said the number of suspected cases of microcephaly, a neurological disorder in which infants are born with smaller craniums and brains, increased to 3893 by January 16 from 3530 cases 10 days earlier.

The number of reported deaths of deformed babies rose to 49, ministry officials said at a news conference.

So far, health authorities have only confirmed six cases of microcephaly where the infant was infected with the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The surge of cases since the new virus was first detected last year in Brazil led the ministry to link it to the fetal deformations and warn pregnant women to use insect repellent to avoid mosquito bites.

On Tuesday, Brazilian researchers took another step towards proving Zika causes microcephaly. The Fiocruz biomedical centre in Curitiba announced it had found Zika in the placenta of a woman who had a miscarriage, proving the virus can reach the fetus. Until now, researchers had only found Zika in the amniotic fluid of two pregnant women.

“This is a significant advance, but we still cannot scientifically state that Zika is the cause of microcephaly,” said Jean Peron, an immunology expert who is experimenting on pregnant mice at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences.

The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also known to carry the dengue, yellow fever and Chikungunya viruses.

Health experts are unsure why the virus detected in Africa in 1947, but unknown in the Americas until last year, is spreading so rapidly in Brazil and neighbouring countries.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel advisory last week warning pregnant women to avoid 14 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Latin America affected by the virus.

Last week, US health authorities confirmed the birth of a baby with microcephaly in Hawaii to a mother who had been infected with the Zika virus while visiting Brazil last year.

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‘Dragon thief’ thrived after calamity

In the early years of the Jurassic Period, when the world was recovering from one of the worst mass extinctions on record, a modest meat-eating dinosaur from Wales helped pave the way for some of the most fearsome predators ever to stalk the earth.

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Scientists on Wednesday announced the discovery of fossil remains of a two-legged dinosaur called Dracoraptor that lived 200 million years ago and was a forerunner of much later colossal carnivores like Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus and Spinosaurus.

Dracoraptor means “dragon thief”. The Welsh flag bears a red dragon.

The fossil is of a 2.1m juvenile, with adults reaching perhaps 3m, said paleontologist Steven Vidovic of Britain’s University of Portsmouth.

At the Triassic Period’s end, not long before Dracoraptor appeared, roughly half of earth’s species became extinct.

Scientists are uncertain of this primordial calamity’s cause. Hypotheses include an asteroid impact like the one that doomed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, volcanic activity or climate change.

This mass extinction event that ushered in the Jurassic was pivotal in letting dinosaurs become the dominant land animals.

The biggest land predators at the end of the Triassic were not dinosaurs, but rather rauisuchians, big four-legged reptiles. Rivers teemed with phytosaurs, huge crocodile-like reptiles.

Both these groups disappeared in the mass extinction, clearing the way for dinosaur carnivores that until then were only moderate in size to become the top terrestrial predators.

Vidovic said the Dracoraptor fossils, discovered in 2014 on a beach near the Welsh town of Penarth, represent some of the most complete dinosaur remains from this time, with 40 per cent of the skeleton unearthed.

“So this dinosaur starts to fill in some gaps in our knowledge about the dinosaurs that survived the Triassic extinction and gave rise to all the dinosaurs that we know from Jurassic Park, books and TV,” Vidovic said.

“Dinosaurs diversified and populated the ecological niches in the Early Jurassic.”

It was an early representative of the theropod group that included the likes of T. rex, and had the same general shape as that beast, although much smaller.

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The last time Earth was this hot hippos lived in Britain (that’s 130,000 years ago)

Emma Stone, University of Bristol and Alex Farnsworth, University of Bristol

It’s official: 2015 was the warmest year on record.

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But those global temperature records only date back to 1850 and become increasingly uncertain the further back you go. Beyond then, we’re reliant on signs left behind in tree rings, ice cores or rocks. So when was the Earth last warmer than the present?

The Medieval Warm Period is often cited as the answer. This spell, beginning in roughly 950AD and lasting for three centuries, saw major changes to population centres across the globe. This included the collapse of the Tiwanaku civilisation in South America due to increased aridity, and the colonisation of Greenland by the Vikings.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, some regions were warmer than in recent years, but others were substantially colder. Across the globe, averaged temperatures then were in fact cooler than today.

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To reach a point when the Earth was significantly warmer than today we’d need to go back 130,000 years, to a time known as the Eemian.

For about 1.8m years the planet had fluctuated between a series of ice ages and warmer periods known as “interglacials”. The Eemian, which lasted around 15,000 years, was the most recent of these interglacials (before the one we’re currently in).

Although global annual average temperatures were approximately 1 to 2˚C warmer than pre-industrial levels, high latitude regions were several degrees warmer still. This meant ice caps melted, Greenland’s ice sheet was reduced and the West Antarctic ice sheet may have collapsed. The sea level was at least 6m higher than today.

Across Asia and North America forests extended much further north than today and straight-tusked elephants (now extinct) and hippopotamuses were living as far north as the British Isles.

How do we know all this? Well, scientists can estimate the temperature changes at this time by looking at chemicals found in ice cores and marine sediment cores and studying pollen buried in layers deep underground. Certain isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in ice cores can determine the temperature in the past while pollen tells us which plant species were present, and therefore gives us an indication of climatic conditions suitable for that species.

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We know from air bubbles in ice cores drilled on Antarctica that greenhouse gas concentrations in the Eemian were not dissimilar to preindustrial levels. However orbital conditions were very different – essentially there were much larger latitudinal and seasonal variations in the amount of solar energy received by the Earth.

So although the Eemian was warmer than today the driving mechanism for this warmth was fundamentally different to present-day climate change, which is down to greenhouses gases. To find a warm period caused predominantly by conditions more similar to today, we need to go even further back in time.

 

The past 540 million years. Note the Eemian spike and the Miocene Optimum. Glen Fergus / wiki, CC BY-SA

 

As climate scientists, we’re particularly interested in the Miocene (around 23 to 5.3 million years ago), and in particular a spell known as the Miocene-Climate Optimum (11-17 million years ago). Around this time CO2 values (350-400ppm) were similar to today and it therefore potentially serves as an appropriate analogue for the future.

During the Optimum, those carbon dioxide concentrations were the predominant driver of climate change. Global average temperatures were 2 to 4˚C warmer than preindustrial values, sea level was around 20m higher and there was an expansion of tropical vegetation.

However, during the later Miocene period CO2 declined to below preindustrial levels, but global temperatures remained significantly warmer. What kept things warm, if not CO2? We still don’t know exactly – it may have been orbital shifts, the development of modern ocean circulation or even big geographical changes such as the Isthmus of Panama narrowing and eventually closing off – but it does mean direct comparison with the present day is problematic.

Currently orbital conditions are suitable to trigger the next glacial inception. We’re due another ice age. However, as pointed out in a recent study in Nature, there’s now so much carbon in the atmosphere the likelihood of this occurring is massively reduced over the next 100,000 years.

Emma Stone receives funding from the European Research Council.

Alex Farnsworth receives funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC).

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Gordon hopes for fresh start in 2016

Queensland MP Billy Gordon is hoping for a fresh start after dropping an extortion complaint against a Cairns grandmother.

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Christine Gibson, 50, was charged in September after police alleged she used an explicit picture of Mr Gordon to blackmail him.

But the case was dropped on Wednesday when police prosecutors offered no evidence to the charge.

“We decided on legal advice to withdraw the complaint on the basis of drawing a line in the sand and moving on,” Mr Gordon told ABC radio on Thursday.

“We made a conscious decision, particularly coming into the new year, to start afresh.”

The independent MP has rarely addressed his electorate or the media since allegations he sent numerous women explicit photos began to surface.

He admits scandals hindered his ability to represent Cook in 2015 but says he’ll be “staying out of the newspapers for the wrong reasons” this year.

“Going into 2016, we’ve made a commitment … to go out there on the front foot and really take the bull by the horns,” he said.

“Every bit of legislation that comes through the house this year has to come through me to some degree so, it’s going to be a really hectic year.”

The picture scandal was just one of many to bother Mr Gordon throughout the year.

He also faced allegations of domestic violence in NSW and Queensland but was cleared after police investigations.

Queensland Police also found there wasn’t enough evidence to lay charges over the alleged unsolicited explicit pictures.

Ms Gibson’s lawyer, Paul Richardson, had asked for details about the police investigation into the pictures for his client’s case but was told they could not be provided.

He told AAP Ms Gibson was relieved the charges had been dropped and looked forward to getting on with her life.

Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg suggested Mr Gordon’s desire for a fresh start might not be that simple.

“I don’t think we should jump to any conclusions in thinking there won’t be any other personal issues around the Member for Cook,” Mr Springborg said.

“I mean time will tell in regards to that.”

Mr Springborg said Mr Gordon’s constituents will judge his actions at the next election.

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Oil spiral drives biodiesel producer under

Australia’s largest biodiesel producer has been forced into receivership as a result of the collapse in global oil prices and changes in federal government policy.

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Australian Renewable Fuels says it can no longer cope with the costs of producing its renewable fuel at a time when oil prices have slumped to under $US30 a barrel and dented demand for biodiesel.

While oil prices have plunged, prices for feedstock – renewable biological materials like animals fats and vegetable oils used to produce clean burning diesel – have jumped.

“The historical long term correlation between the barrel price of oil and the cost price of feedstock has broken down,” ARF directors said in a statement on Thursday.

“This has been exacerbated by the extent of the dramatic fall in the oil price and hence our selling price for biodiesel.”

The company needed to sell 48 million litres of biodiesel, which is safe to use in any diesel engine, to break even.

ARF sells biodiesel to fuel wholesalers and petrol distributors including Shell, BP, Greenfreight, Viva Energy Australia, Woolworths and Meredith Dairy.

It was developing a line of cheaper feedstock supplies from Asia, and had considered raising biodiesel sale prices, pursuing more exports to the United States, and cutting back on plant production to help keep the company afloat.

However these ideas were rejected by the company’s lenders, forcing it initially into voluntary administration before appointing KordaMentha as receivers.

ARF’s board also blamed its financial woes on federal government changes to biodiesel policies.

The government has scrapped its cleaner fuels tax grants scheme and provides subsidies for imported biodiesel.

“The continued and destabilising uncertainty of the federal government’s policy in regard to biodiesel over recent years had … increased the company’s financial reliance upon its debt providers,” ARF said.

ARF employs about 50 people at plants in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

The company is maintaining operations for now while KordaMentha examines its books and searches for a buyer.

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Deng Thiak Adut delivers Australia Day address

Refugee lawyer and former child soldier Deng Thiak Adut says Australians should cherish the freedom from fear that comes with living in the country.

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Mr Adut arrived in Australia in 1998 from South Sudan, along with his brother, and went on to study law and work as a refugee lawyer in western Sydney, he told the audience at his Australia Day address for NSW.

Speaking on Thursday, he recalled a past speech by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, in which she said all non-Indigenous Australians are newcomers to the land.

“I wonder what the Gadigal people in 1788 thought as they watched the ships sailing, coming up to their harbour?” Mr Adut said.

“Did they realise that their civilisation was about to be uprooted?”

Related: Multimedia photo essay

Mr Adut recounted his life story – made famous in Western Sydney University TV advertisements, which he said he did to “emphasise how very lucky we are to enjoy freedom from fear, and how very unlucky are many.”

Born as one of eight children in a small village called Malek in South Sudan, Mr Adut was taken from his parents at the age of six and conscripted into the People’s Liberation Army in 1987.

Mr Adut told the audience at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which included Premier Mike Baird, he could barely comprehend the freedoms he had lost.

“I lost the freedom to read and write. I lost the freedom to sing children’s songs. I lost the right to be innocent. I lost the right to be a child.

“Instead I was taught to sing war songs.

“I was taught to love the death of others,” he said at the Australia Day Council of NSW’s annual address.

He said as a child soldier he was expected to “kill or be killed”, and reflected upon the small things Australians take for granted, such as education, plentiful food and clothing.

“I remember the deadened face and the gaunt skeletal body of one of my nephews lying on a corn sack,” he said.

“I saw too much abuse and death among my friends during the war.”

Denied an initiation into his tribe, Mr Adut said he did not know how it felt to belong until he received Australian citizenship many years later.

“The mark of inclusiveness was denied to me,” he said.

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He said Australia opened its doors to him and gave him the opportunity to educate himself.

“How lucky I became. How lucky is a person who receives an education in a free land and goes on to use it in daily life.”

He said he wondered what his fellow child soldier conscripts would have thought of him becoming a lawyer in Australia.

“I grieve for them. For them the freedom from fear was death – I was lucky,” he said.

After arriving in Australia, Mr Adut learned English and completed a TAFE degree in accounting before studying at Western Sydney University and Wollongong University.

He called on every migrant to cherish their new land, but to never forget their origins.

He said all new Australians must put trauma behind them and follow their dreams.

Settled Australians must be wary of allowing “local opportunists” to exploit emotions of fear and doubt.

“What makes this nation one to be proud of is the willingness of most in our communities to be accepting, tolerant, inclusive and welcoming,” he said.

Mr Baird said Mr Adut’s story was of a man who overcame every barrier before him.

“I don’t think any of us could imagine the challenges and obstacles that were put before Deng in his life,” Mr Baird said.

“But, in those challenges, he not only overcame, he found himself here as part of this great country, and he is determined to give back.”

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2015 hottest year on record

Last year’s global average temperature was the hottest ever by the widest margin on record, two U.

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S. government agencies said on Wednesday, adding to pressure for deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts scientists say are needed to arrest warming that is disrupting the global climate.

Data from the U.S. space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that in 2015 the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.90 Celsius) above the 20th century average, surpassing 2014’s previous record by 0.29 F (0.16 C).

Scientists at the United Kingdom’s Met Office and East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit also published data on Wednesday confirming the U.S. agencies findings.

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This was the fourth time a global temperature record has been set this century, the agencies said in a summary of their annual report.

“2015 was remarkable even in the context of the larger, long-term warming trend,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The sharp increase in 2015 was driven in part by El Niño, a natural weather cycle in the Pacific that warms the ocean surface every two to seven years. But scientists say human activities – notably burning fossil fuels – were the main driver behind the rise.

“The 2015 data continues the pattern we’ve seen over the last four to five decades,” said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

The latest El Niño started in late 2015 and will last until spring 2016. It is among the strongest ever recorded but Schmidt and others say the weather phenomenon played just a supporting role in the earth’s temperature rise.

RELATED: THE FEEDMore than halfway to UN target

The 2015 data underscores the urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions if the world is to hold temperature increases to well below 2 degrees C, the target agreed to by more than 190 countries at climate talks in Paris last December, scientists said.

With the global mean surface temperature in 2015 more than 1 degree C above late-19th century levels, the world is now halfway to the U.N. target, which would require stronger greenhouse gas emissions cuts.

“This announcement should put pressure on governments to urgently implement their commitments to act against climate change, and to increase the strength of their planned cuts in annual emissions of greenhouse gases,” said Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in London.

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In the United States, some Republican lawmaker and those skeptical of human-caused climate change have pointed to a slowdown in temperature rise after the last powerful El Niño in 1998 as a sign that climate change is not a serious problem.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said in December at a hearing on climate change science that there had been no significant global warming for the past 18 years.

NOAA’s Karl said that with two back-to-back years of record warming, likely to be followed with a third next year, any doubts that have been raised by skeptical lawmakers about a pause in global warming can be put to rest.

“There is no sign of a pause and slowing,” Karl told reporters Wednesday, adding that it is a safe bet that 2016 will break the 2015 record given the long-term trend and the impact of El Niño in the first quarter of the year.

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Delay in Flint water response ‘inexplicable and inexcusable’: Obama

Blame is swirling after a switch in the water supply to the financially strapped city of 100,000 north of Detroit led to elevated levels of lead in drinking water.

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“What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out that there was a problem there and that there was lead in the water, the notion that immediately families weren’t notified, things weren’t shut down,” Obama said in an interview with CBS.

       

“If I were a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kid’s health could be at risk,” Obama said after touring a car show in nearby Detroit.

      

Facing protests, lawsuits and calls for his resignation, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, apologised to the city’s residents on Tuesday and called for the state to spend US$28 million on fixes. The Michigan House quickly approved Snyder’s funding request on Wednesday.

      

The US Environmental Protection Agency, while saying it was reviewing its handling of the crisis and could have acted faster to inform the state of what measures it should take, also blamed the state on Tuesday. It said the agency’s oversight was hampered by “failures and resistance at the state and local levels.”

     

Flint, under a state-appointed emergency manager, switched to Flint River water in April 2014 from the Lake Huron supply that Detroit uses to save money.

      

Complaints about the water began within a month of the move.  But Flint did not return to Detroit water until October 2015 after tests showed elevated levels of lead, which can cause brain damage and other health problems, in Flint tap water and in some children. Corrosive water from the river, known locally as a dumping ground, caused more lead to leach from Flint pipes than Detroit water did.

      

“This is something nobody should have to deal with. Everybody should have clean water,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told a conference in Washington.

     

“They need to be much more aggressive in what’s going on with Flint,” Weaver said later on CNN about the EPA’s response.

       

In a speech on Tuesday, Snyder said federal, state and local leaders had failed residents. He asked Michigan lawmakers to authorise spending on diagnostic tests, health treatment for children and adolescents, replacement of old fixtures in Flint schools and day care centers and a study of the city’s water pipes.

Emails released             

Snyder, who has faced questions about how quickly he acted after learning about the water contamination, released 274 pages of Flint-related emails from 2014 and 2015 on Wednesday, ranging from press releases to staff memos and planning notes.

       

The governor’s then chief of staff told Snyder in a Sept. 26 email, “We can’t tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it. We’re throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem … The residents and particularly the poor need help to deal with it.”

      

Also on Wednesday, Snyder appealed Obama’s denial over the weekend of a federal major disaster declaration saying Flint faces a long-term threat and that such an order could bring additional help. On the same day Obama rejected the disaster declaration, he signed an emergency order for Flint.

       

A group of bipartisan lawmakers including Michigan Republican Fred Upton, of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote last week to EPA head Gina McCarthy, requesting a briefing about Flint. That briefing to congressional staffers was scheduled for Thursday.

       

The House committee letter mentioned reports that said people in Flint have been exposed to dangerous biological pathogens and chemicals in the drinking water. Although Flint has now switched back to Detroit’s water system, lead levels in the city’s water are still elevated.

       

Separately, Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Flint, said in an interview the $28 million sought by Snyder will not be enough to address Flint’s long-term problems – including aiding as many as 9,000 children who may have suffered lead poisoning.

       

“These kids are going to need help for a long time,” Kildee said. Snyder and the legislature need to “step up” and provide funding for long-term efforts beyond fixing the water system.

      

Kildee said the EPA may bear some blame for not blowing the whistle publicly earlier, but the state bears most of the responsibility.

      

Several lawsuits have been filed in the case. The latest on Tuesday asked a judge to stop Flint from issuing shutoff notices to residents who are still receiving bills for water declared undrinkable.

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Australians warned about Mexico travel

The US government has updated a travel warning for Mexico after two Australian surfers and more than 100 Americans were murdered in the past year.

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Adam Coleman and Dean Lucas, both 33 and from Perth, were driving along the Benito Juarez Highway in the early hours of November 21 in crime-ridden Sinaloa state, home to recently captured drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Sinaloa authorities said bandits dressed in fake police uniforms pulled the Australians over and when Mr Coleman resisted he was shot in the face, but survived.

The pair was then allegedly held at gunpoint, driven to a deserted farming area, murdered and their bodies and van torched.

The US State Department’s updated advisory includes details of restrictions placed on the travel of US government personnel in Mexico.

Last year 103 Americans were murdered in Mexico.

“US citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery by organised criminal groups in various Mexican states,” the State Department warns.

For the west coast state of Sinaloa, the US government advises non-essential travel should be deferred except for the cities of Mazatlan, Los Mochis and the Port of Topolobampo “where you should exercise caution”.

“One of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organisations is based in the state of Sinaloa, and violent crime rates remain high in many parts of the state,” the US advisory states.

The Australian government, in its latest Mexico travel update on January 15, advises “Australians to exercise a high degree of caution in Mexico”.

“The level of this advice has not changed,” it states.

“Travellers should be aware of risk of violent crime and from instances of civil unrest when travelling by road in rural areas.”

Three men, who Sinaloa prosecutors said were “part of a criminal group”, were arrested two weeks after Mr Coleman and Mr Lucas were murdered.

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Woodside expected to cut dividend

Woodside Petroleum shareholders are bracing for a big cut to their dividends after the energy giant flagged up to $US1.

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2 billion in writedowns due to the slump in oil prices.

The company has lowered its short and long term price assumptions as oil prices slide to 13-year lows, meaning Woodside expects to take an impairment charge of between $US1 billion ($A1.45 billion) and $US1.2 billion ($A1.74 billion) against its asset values.

That is expected to slash its 2015 net profit by between $US700 million and $US850 million when the oil and gas producer releases financial results in February.

Woodside made a net profit of $US2.4 billion in 2014.

Analysts say the damage caused by plunging prices will push dividends lower and could also affect the development timeline of Woodside’s key growth project, Browse, in north Western Australia.

US crude touched a low of $US26.30 overnight after the International Energy Agency warned the market could “drown in oversupply”.

Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman remains upbeat, saying the company is now seeing the benefits of its work to boost productivity.

“The recent significant fall in oil and gas prices has highlighted the quality of our low cost production and approach to balance sheet risk management,” he said.

Fat Prophets Resources analyst David Lennox said the large writedowns were to be expected given weak oil prices.

“Woodside’s net profit will definitely be lower so one would expect that their dividend would be lower,” he said.

Woodside has previously maintained an 80 per cent dividend payout ratio.

Mr Lennox said if Woodside and its Browse partners decide to rationalise capital in the low oil price environment, they would need to consider delaying a final investment decision on the project.

“Because that project has a long lead time they may just put it on the backburner for a little while,” Mr Lennox said.

Mr Coleman said cost savings are being delivered in the front-end engineering and design phase of Browse, and the project remains on track for a final investment decision in the second half of 2016.

Woodside said its 2015 sales revenue dropped more than a third to $US4.5 billion ($A6.53 billion), due to lower oil and gas prices.

Revenue for the December quarter fell by a similar amount to $US1.1 billion, compared to the previous corresponding period.

Woodside shares dropped 39 cents to $25.00.