Soaring natural gas production, combined with strong growth in its gas transportation businesses, led to a 21 percent jump in National Fuel Gas Co.’s first-quarter profits, the Amherst-based energy company said.
The earnings were much stronger than analysts had expected and prompted National Fuel to boost its profit forecast for the full fiscal year by 2 percent as earnings increased in all of the company’s five main business units.
“We’ve gotten off to a strong start,” said Ronald J. Tanski, National Fuel’s president and chief executive officer, during a conference call Friday.
Much of the earnings growth came from the two businesses that National Fuel operates to transport natural gas. Earnings from its higher-capacity pipelines and natural gas storage business grew by 13 percent, while operating profits from the lower-capacity gathering systems in the fast-growing Marcellus Shale region that move gas from the wellhead to larger pipelines more than tripled.
The company’s oil and natural gas drilling business boosted its profits by 17 percent, as a 51 percent jump in production that came entirely from its wells in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania offset the impact of lower oil and natural gas prices. The price National Fuel received for the natural gas it produced dropped by 15 percent during the quarter, after hedging, while oil prices slipped by 3 percent.
Earnings from the company’s utility business grew by 6 percent, mainly because of the impact of colder temperatures in its Pennsylvania service territory, where fluctuations in the weather are not evened out through a weather normalization formula, as they are in New York.
Operating profits from its energy marketing business more than tripled, partly because an accounting change credited the business with an extra month’s worth of revenues during the quarter.
“Our integrated model is working well,” Tanski said.
National Fuel’s overall profits strengthened to $82.3 million, or 97 cents per share, from $67.9 million, or 81 cents per share, a year earlier. The earnings easily topped the 86 cents per share that analysts were expecting.
That prompted National Fuel to inch its profit forecast for the entire fiscal year, which ends in September, up to between $3.20 and $3.40 per share, raising the lower end of its earnings projection from $3.15 per share while holding the upper end steady.
National Fuel also said it is sticking with its earlier forecast that its overall oil and gas production this year would rise by between 20 percent and 37 percent to the equivalent of 145 billion to 165 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Production likely will come in above 155 billion cubic feet unless the company curtails production this summer because of falling natural gas prices, said David P. Bauer, the company’s treasurer.
With natural gas futures prices hovering around $4 for 2015 and 2016, despite the recent spike that pushed spot prices to around $5 per 1,000 cubic feet recently, Tanski said he expects National Fuel to continue to operate three drilling rigs in the Marcellus region for the rest of this year.