HOUSTON Chesapeake Energy Corp (CHK.N) wants to sell holdings in Arkansas' Fayetteville shale natural gas field and its stakes in two companies to raise $5 billion as it tries to trim a heavy debt load.
News of the planned sale sent the company's shares soaring as much as 7 percent on Monday. The stock pared some gains and was up about 5.7 percent in early afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading.
Chesapeake, which reported nearly $15 billion in long-term debt as of September 30, 2010, has been aggressive in buying up properties in shale gas fields across the United States.
But in response to persistent low natural gas prices, the company has vowed to shift its exploration focus away from drilling for gas in places like the Fayetteville Shale and to instead look for oil.
Chesapeake also promised investors last month that it would stop spending richly on acreage and cut its debt.
"You are looking at guys who have outspent cash flow since 1991," said Ray Deacon, an analyst at Pritchard Capital Partners. "If they can reduce the debt by doing this, I think the story becomes a lot more interesting."
Some have speculated that the company is responding to prodding by billionaire Carl Icahn, who more than doubled his stake in the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, business in December. Icahn owns nearly 6 percent of Chesapeake.
BIG OIL INTEREST?
Chesapeake, the second-largest natural gas producer in the United States behind Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N), said sales of its Fayetteville shale acreage and equity investments in Frac Tech Holdings LLC and Chaparral Energy are expected to be completed in the first half of the year.
The Fayetteville assets, which total 487,000 acres, will likely draw the interest of big oil companies, which have been buying natural gas assets in recent months.
"We think a $3.5 billion value for Fayetteville is a reasonable assumption, but a logical buyer is a different question, as this is likely too big for a private equity player," analysts at Houston-based energy investment bank Simmons & Co said in a morning note to clients.
"Ultimately, we think it will again be a major or international who is willing to take a longer-term view on natural gas prices."
BP Plc (BP.L) owns 25 percent of the acreage that Chesapeake is selling. BP formed a $1.9 billion joint venture in the Fayetteville field with Chesapeake in September 2008.
BP has the right of first refusal on its stake, a spokesman for Chesapeake said.
A spokesman for BP was not immediately available to comment, but the company has been selling assets to pay for damage from its 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.
Other potential buyers could include Southwestern Energy Co (SWN.N) or Murphy Oil Corp (MUR.N), Pritchard's Deacon said.
Proceeds from the sale, as well as a recently announced partnership with China's CNOOC Ltd (0883.HK) in the Niobrara shale, would be used to pay down about $2 billion to $3 billion in shorter-dated senior notes and reduce borrowing under its revolving bank credit facility, the company said.
The news also caused the cost to insure debt issued by Chesapeake against potential default to fall sharply. Credit default swaps tightened by 50 basis points to 258 basis points, according to a source.
That means it costs $258,000 a year to insure $10 million of Chesapeake Energy bonds for five years.
Chesapeake's shares rose 5.7 percent, or $1.70, to $31.76 on the NYSE. So far this year, the stock has climbed 22 percent, far outpacing an 8 percent gain in the ARCA index of natural gas companies .XNG.
(Additional reporting by Matt Daily in New York, Kristen Hays in Houston and IFR analyst Melissa Mott; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Maureen Bavdek)