expected in weeks@
* Wheatstone had been due to start shipping in mid-2017
* First cargo expected in "coming weeks"
* Wheatstone LNG will produce 8.9 million tpy at full capacity (Adds trader, Woodside comments, chart, factbox in related content section)
MELBOURNE, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Chevron Corp said on Monday it has started producing liquefied natural gas (LNG) at its Wheatstone project in Australia, slightly later than expected, and plans to ship its first cargo soon.
The LNG market will be focused on how smoothly Wheatstone progresses following the troubled start-up at Chevron's bigger Gorgon LNG project. Both projects are fed from natural gas fields offshore the state of Western Australia.
"The first cargo is on track to be shipped in the coming weeks," Chevron Corp said in a statement. It had originally hoped to start exporting from Wheatstone in middle of 2017.
Wheatstone is the sixth out of eight projects in a $200 billion Australian LNG construction boom that is now in its final stretch. The two remaining ones are Royal Dutch Shell's Prelude floating LNG project and Ichthys, led by Japan's Inpex.
This massive expansion, which has suffered numerous delays, has propelled Australia past Malaysia to become the world's second-biggest LNG exporter. Once all the mega-projects are completed, Australia will challenge Qatar for the top spot.
Wheatstone, co-owned by Australia's Woodside Petroleum , Kuwait Foreign Exploration Co and Japan's Kyushu Electric Power Co, has two gas liquefaction units, which at full capacity will supply 8.9 million metric tonnes of LNG a year to customers in Asia.
The company expects the second unit to start producing six to eight months after the first.
Woodside has been closely involved in Wheatstone, looking to ensure smooth development, as the company expects the project to be the largest contributor to its planned 15 percent production growth over the next three years.
"Wheatstone is a world-class asset and the safe start-up of the facility was one of our priorities for 2017, supporting our near-term growth strategy," Woodside Chief Executive Peter Coleman said in a statement.
Wheatstone exports could stall this year's recovery in Asian spot LNG prices <LNG-AS>, which have surged 55 percent since March to $8.50 per million British thermal units on unexpectedly strong demand and the delayed ramp-up of many of the Australian LNG export facilities.
"If Wheatstone's start-up goes ahead without hiccups, that could tip the market from being a little bit tight to being very well supplied again," said one LNG trader.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul and Henning Gloystein in Singapore; Editing by Paul Tait and Christian Schmollinger)