Calgary-based natural gas producer Encana Corp. said Monday it is trying to find partners to pony up cash to develop its oil and liquids-rich properties, leading one analyst to speculate it could be a takeover target.
"They’re selling assets and looking for joint ventures because they’re cash strapped," said Gord Currie, an energy analyst with Salman Partners, told CBC News.
"At these low gas prices their cash flows are impacted and their ability to develop their own resources is affected."
Encana's announcement came as the price of natural gas dipped to a new 10-year low, with gas for May delivery trading down four cents at below $2.09 US per million British thermal units in early trading in New York. It closed up two cents at $2.15.
Encana is a giant Canadian energy player with a market value nearing $15 billion, but Currie does not rule out the possibility of it being acquired by foreign interests.
In late 2010, Ottawa vetoed the proposed $40 billion US hostile takeover offer for Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, the world’s biggest fertilizer company, by Australian miner BHP Billiton following stiff opposition by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, several other provinces and by PotashCorp itself.
But given the federal government’s commitment to the development of Canada’s natural resources, Currie doubted Encana would be a similar concern.
"To deny a takeover would be effectively to say ‘we’re going to prevent you from developing those assets.’"
As well, Currie suggested, with Encana’s extensive properties in the U.S., "it’s not even a uniquely Canadian company anymore."
Storage facilities in North America are bulging with record-high inventories, raising concerns that prices that have been at historic lows for two years could collapse, and further stress cash-stretched producing companies.
Prices have dropped by more than half since last summer as supply increased as a result of new technology that opened up previously inaccessible shale formations to production and as warm weather cut winter demand.
Encana shares closed up a penny at $19.60 on the Toronto Stock Exchange. They have lost more than 40 per cent of their value in a year.
Encana and big U.S. producers such as Chesapeake and ConocoPhillips have shut down producing wells to try to slow the growth of supply.
The low price for dry gas has led companies to concentrate on producing more of what are called gas liquids, such as butane or pentane, which are used as fuels or solvents and which are more profitable.
"Over the past two years, we have increased our prospective oil and liquids-rich holdings and we plan to develop them using the same methodology we apply to our natural gas plays — through a low-cost entry approach and a firm focus on improving operating efficiencies and lowering our cost structures," Encana CEO Randy Eresman said.
Encana would keep control
"Accelerating the rate of development on our oil and liquids-rich land holdings can be achieved by leveraging third-party capital, which shortens our development timelines, reduces our cost structures and allows us to realize the value we have captured in these opportunities at an earlier stage."
Eresman added that Encana continues to believe in the long-term future of natural gas and is also investigating the potential for additional long-term partnerships for its natural gas lands.
Encana's U.S. division has several holdings with oil and liquids potential, including the Tuscaloosa Marine shale straddling the Mississippi and Louisiana border, the Utica/Collingwood formations in Michigan, the Eaglebine play in East Texas and the Mississippian Lime in Oklahoma and Kansas.
"At this point, it is premature to speculate on the size or value of any potential transaction," Eresman said.
"We are marketing an interest in these assets in which Encana would continue to operate and retain majority ownership,"
Encana has formed a number of multibillion-dollar partnerships in which it has sold off portions of its various natural gas projects.
Most recently, Encana said in February it would sell a chunk of its undeveloped British Columbia natural gas lands to a Japanese player for $2.9 billion.
In that deal, Mitsubishi Corp. gets a 40 per cent interest in the Cutbank Ridge Partnership.
Encana has cut back on capital spending by more than a third compared with 2011, to $2.9-billion this year.