* EBIT up 11 pct to 39.6 bln crowns, vs forecast 38.2 bln
* Shale gas, LNG seen hitting natural gas markets
* No big impact on own Mexico Gulf operations from BP spill
* Oil liquids prices up 48 pct in crowns, gas off 35 pct
* Shares down 2 percent, lagging peers
(Adds analyst on M&A, more on BP spill impact)
By Wojciech Moskwa and Joergen Frich
OSLO, May 5 Norwegian major Statoil (STL.OL) said gas markets would stay challenging as large-scale development of shale gas and LNG kept prices low.
Statoil, which on Wednesday reported a strong first quarter boosted by pricey oil, signalled again it might slow gas production if prices stay under pressure due to the additional supply and with industrial demand for natural gas crippled by economic woes.
Europe's No.2 gas supplier after Gazprom (GAZP.MM) reaffirmed its oil and gas production guidance, but said commodity prices would remain volatile and the gas market would "be challenging in the near term".
Statoil said average gas prices in the quarter slumped 35 percent compared to a year ago to 1.64 crowns per cubic metre.
"Gas demand is still weak and supply is growing particularly fast due to new LNG (liquefied natural gas) and shale gas in the United States," Chief Executive Helge Lund told reporters.
"The latter in particular will be expected to dominate the pricing picture for some time. We expect the gas market to gradually tighten and moderate price increases going forward."
Statoil's adjusted earnings before interest and tax rose to 39.6 billion Norwegian crowns ($6.7 billion) in January-March from 35.5 billion a year ago, beating an average forecast of 38.2 billion in a Reuters poll.
Higher first-quarter crude prices have also lifted profits for majors Exxon Mobil (XOM.N), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) and BP (BP.L). [ID:nN30194307]
"Statoil's results today are not going to be sufficient to move the stock higher, especially after large beats from peers over the last few weeks," said Bernstein analyst Oswald Clint.
"While reaffirmation of guidance is positive we continue to expect rising pressures to meet medium- and longer-term production targets without large scale M&A," Clint added, pointing to a 7 percent year-on-year drop in Norwegian output.
GULF OF MEXICO
To offset dropping production at home, Statoil has aggressively bought acreage in the Gulf of Mexico, among other regions.
Most of Statoil's Mexico Gulf developments remain far from production, even before BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf raised fresh questions over U.S. offshore safety regulations.
Lund said the spill had not impacted Statoil's activities in the Gulf other than a one-day stop at a rig owned by Transocean (RIG.N) to allow friends and relatives of those killed in the BP accident on another Transocean platform to leave.
For a map of Statoil assets in the Gulf, click on: here
Statoil is one of the world's top deep-water producers, with the majority of its output from fields in Norwegian waters.
"The events and developments of the last days are obviously very serious," Lund said of the spill. "It is too early to conclude what caused this but I am certain the industry and authorities will do everything to uncover what happened and reduce the chances of something similar happening again."
Statoil affirmed its 2010 oil and gas production target of 1.925-1.975 million barrels of oil equivalent per day and its 2.1-2.2 million 2012 goal, depending on prices of natural gas.
"When it comes to (production) guidance, I remind you that we focus on value and not volumes," Lund told reporters.
Unlike many of its peers, Statoil failed to capitalise on the higher oil prices with its production falling 1 percent to 1.915 million barrels per day in the first quarter.
Exxon, Chevron (CVX.N) and Total (TOTF.PA) recorded oil and gas production growth of 4.5 percent versus a year ago. Shell led with a 6 percent gain, though BP's production was flat.
Shares in Statoil were off 2.0 percent at 139.4 crowns at 1049 GMT, lagging a rising STXE 600 Oil and Gas Index .SXEP. ($1 = 5.937 Norwegian crowns) (Editing by Jon Loades-Carter)