-Natural gas throughput up 8%
-El Paso seeking expansion in Marcellus shale formation
-Higher maintenance and payroll costs drag on pipeline business
(Updates throughout with details, analyst comment)
By Ben Lefebvre
El Paso Corp.'s (>> El Paso Corp) fourth-quarter earnings more than doubled as higher oil prices offset a drop in natural gas values, the company said Monday.
El Paso, which operates an oil-and-gas production business and a network of interstate natural-gas pipelines in North America, last year agreed to sell itself to Kinder Morgan Inc. (>> Kinder Morgan Inc) for $21 billion, a deal which is expected to close by the second quarter of this year. The Houston-based company said Friday it would sell its oil and gas production business to a group of investors led by Apollo Global Management for $7.15 billion, a deal also expected to close by the second quarter.
For the latest period, El Paso posted a profit of $185 million, or 24 cents a share, up from $71 million, or 9 cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue rose 25% to $1.23 billion. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected earnings of 29 cents a share on $1.35 billion in revenue.
El Paso's E&P segment posted $92 million in profit, compared with a $27 million loss last year, amid a 21% rise in oil prices. The company increased its oil production by 50% year over year, to 22,300 barrels a day, the latest energy producer to shift its focus away from a natural gas market weakened by a supply glut and stagnant demand.
New drilling technology has allowed companies to produce more natural gas from areas previously considered unproductive, creating a glut that has depressed prices. Natural gas for April delivery closed at $2.695 a million British thermal units Friday, down from over $4 in February 2011.
El Paso said overall output rose 11% to 880 million cubic feet equivalent a day. The amount of natural gas flowing through its pipelines grew by 8% as growing production in the Marcellus shale formation in the northeastern U.S. offset a drop in supply from the Rocky Mountain region, El Paso said.
El Paso said it has four permits pending for pipeline expansion projects in the Marcellus even as drillers have announced they will slow down production because of the low prices for the commodity.
"It's likely the right move strategically, but it may be a little premature given where gas prices are," Morningstar analyst Jason Stevens said of El Paso's Marcellus expansion.
An inflationary atmosphere was also a drag on the company's pipeline business, with El Paso saying increased payroll, worker benefit and maintenance costs drove operating earnings down 5% year over year.
Meanwhile, El Paso Pipeline Partners LP (>> El Paso Pipeline Partners, L.P.) saw its earnings rise 24%. El Paso Pipeline reported earnings of $126 million, or 51 cents a unit, up from $102 million, or 53 cents a unit a year earlier. Operating revenue rose 2.8% to $362 million. Analysts expected earnings of 60 cents a unit on revenue of $385 million.
El Paso Pipeline is a so-called master limited partnership, a tax-advantaged structure in which most of the company's earnings are paid out to shareholders in the form of dividend-like distributions. A separate "general partner," which is owned by El Paso Corp., oversees day-to-day operations.
El Paso Corp. was up 1.25% at $27.50 in recent trading. Units for El Paso Pipeline Partners were $37.58, down 1.1%.
-By Ben Lefebvre, Dow Jones Newswires; 713-547-9201; firstname.lastname@example.org
--Mia Lamar contributed to this article.