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Surging earnings from its expanding pipeline system for transporting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale helped National Fuel Gas Co. boost its first-quarter profits by 12 percent, the Amherst-based energy company said.

The earnings topped analyst expectations, and National Fuel said it expects its profits for the current fiscal year to be nearly 4 percent stronger than it previously forecast – and about 30 percent higher than last year – partly because of a 6 percent increase in its oil and natural gas production guidance.

“Our efforts to grow our exploration and production and midstream [pipeline] businesses continue to gain momentum,” said David F. Smith, National Fuel’s chairman and chief executive officer, in a statement.

National Fuel said its profits rose to $67.9 million, or 81 cents per share, during the quarter that ended in December, up from $60.7 million, or 73 cents per share, a year earlier. Analysts had expected the company to earn 77 cents.

The company said it now expects to earn between $2.75 and $3 per share during the fiscal year that ends in September, which is about 10 cents higher than its previous forecast of between $2.65 and $2.95 per share. Analysts were expecting $2.77 per share in earnings this year.

The strength in the first-quarter earnings came largely from National Fuel’s pipeline business, which has completed five expansion projects since the fall of 2011, with its Northern Access and Line N expansion projects coming on line during the first quarter. Those projects, which are aimed at bringing gas from the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania to market, helped earnings from the pipeline business jump by 70 percent to $16.9 million.

“This is a business we’ve been excited about for a long time,” Smith said during a conference call. “We expect continuing midstream growth.”

The company’s utility business also had a strong quarter, with earnings rising by 18 percent, as colder temperatures increased profits from its Pennsylvania service territory.

That offset a 12 percent drop in earnings from its oil and natural gas drilling business, with a $3.7 million pretax charge from the cancellation of a drilling rig contract accounting for most of the decline. The cancellation was part of National Fuel’s decision last year to slow the growth of its drilling program in the Marcellus Shale region because of low natural gas prices. Excluding that charge, earnings from the oil and gas drilling business fell by 4 percent.

But National Fuel still is producing more oil and natural gas. Production grew by 34 percent during the quarter, led by a 58 percent jump in output from its Marcellus wells. That was offset by a 14 percent drop in the average price National Fuel received for that gas.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com