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National Fuel Gas Co.’s fourth-quarter profits jumped by 30 percent as an accounting change that eliminated some retirement expenses offset a 4 percent dip in earnings from its operations, caused mainly by lower natural gas prices, the Amherst-based energy company said.

The earnings topped analysts’ forecasts, and National Fuel executives increased their earnings forecast for the fiscal year that began in October by 6 percent from their earlier estimate. The company now expects its earnings this year to rise by 11 percent because of a projected increase in production from its oil and natural gas drilling business.

National Fuel’s profits rose to $48.8 million, or 58 cents per share, from $37.4 million, or 45 cents per share, a year ago, with all of the increase coming from a settlement with federal energy regulators that allowed the company to eliminate a nearly $13 million liability on its books for retiree benefit plans in its pipeline and storage business.

Excluding that accounting change, National Fuel’s operating profits fell to $36 million, or 43 cents per share, primarily because of lower earnings from its oil and natural gas production business, where lower commodity prices offset a 46 percent increase in production. Even so, the earnings were stronger than the 39 cents per share that analysts were expecting.

National Fuel also said it expects its oil and natural gas production to keep rising during the current fiscal year. The company hiked its production forecast to the equivalent of between 95 billion and 107 billion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s up about 3 percent from its previous estimate and would be a 21 percent increase from the 83.4 billion cubic feet it produced during the fiscal year that ended in September.

Because of the expected increase in production, National Fuel said it now expects its profits during the current fiscal year to rise to between $2.65 and $2.95 per share, which is an 8 percent increase from its previous forecast and 11 percent higher than the $2.53 per share it earned from its operations last year. Analysts were predicting that National Fuel would earn $2.66 during the current fiscal year.

During the fourth quarter, earnings from National Fuel’s oil and gas drilling business tumbled by 28 percent to $22 million, despite a 46 percent increase in production, led by a 63 percent increase in its natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania. But that increase in production was offset by the continued weakness in natural gas commodity prices, which tumbled by 27 percent after hedging.

Earnings from the company’s utility business in Western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania jumped more than seven-fold to $5.9 million, but the bulk of the increase stemmed from an adjustment by regulators to its earnings during the fourth quarter of last year.

Operating profits at its pipeline and storage business nearly quadrupled because of higher rates and the elimination of the retiree benefit liability from its books. Otherwise, earnings from the pipeline and storage business jumped by 67 percent, mainly because of the addition of new pipelines that National Fuel built in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com