Chesapeake doubles down on U.S. shale gas with Vine Energy buy

Aug 11 (Reuters) - Chesapeake Energy Corp (CHK.O) agreed to buy Louisiana natural gas rival Vine Energy Inc (VEI.N) for $615 million, betting on the shale field's proximity to the U.S. Gulf Coast export hub.

Dealmaking in the oil and gas sector has jumped this year as prices rebounded due to the vaccine-driven economic recovery. U.S. oil futures were up about 1.44% on Wednesday at $69.27 a barrel, an increase of about 63% from year-ago levels.

Shale operators have been pitching scale as a way to cut costs, with top gas producer EQT Corp (EQT.N) recently agreeing to buy Appalachian rival Alta Resources for $2.93 billion and Southwestern Energy Co (SWN.N) purchasing privately held Indigo Natural Resources for about $2.7 billion.

Chesapeake has offered 0.2486 share and $1.20 in cash for each stock of Vine, implying a per-share value of $15. That represents a less than 1% premium to Vine's last close of $14.88.

Shares of Vine were up 2.15% on Wednesday at $15.20 and Chesapeake was up 2.4% at $56.81.

Chesapeake fell into bankruptcy last year after years of overspending on acquisitions that left it burdened with debt and short on cash.

Interim Chief Executive Mike Wichterich assured investors on Wednesday that he was not overpaying for Vine, stressing his company was "no longer the Chesapeake of the past."

"We have a super-stable balance sheet," he said in an interview with Reuters. "There is a tone that is a little different and attitude that is a little different."

Chesapeake will continue to evaluate other opportunities in core areas, but "it is hard to find ones that are actionable and work," he said.

The Vine deal, which has an enterprise value of about $2.2 billion, will immediately increase Chesapeake's cash flow and generate $50 million in average annual savings, the company said. The deal will more than double its gas output from the Haynesville shale field in Louisiana, it said.

But it will add $1.07 billion in long-term debt, doubling Chesapeake's debt load months after the company emerged from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy that eliminated $7 billion in obligations.

Chesapeake, which raised its annual production and adjusted income outlook on Tuesday, expects to increase its base dividend by 27% to $1.75 per share after the deal closes, expected in the fourth quarter. read more

Chesapeake has more "running room" for its south Texas shale assets, which Reuters had reported were for sale earlier this year, Wichterich said. "I think the team can find a lot of value there."

The company will continue to try to make its Powder River Basin assets work, but if it can not, the company would consider selling it, he said.

"We've given the team a budget to work with to give it a last shot. If they can make it work, we’ll consider keeping it," he said in an interview.

Reporting by Arathy S Nair in Bengaluru and Liz Hampton in Denver; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Marguerita Choy

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