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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Encana Corp (ECA.TO) is launching a formal search for a partner to help develop a number of properties in the United States and Canada with potential for lucrative oil and liquids-rich natural gas, as the company struggles with chronically depressed prices for dry gas, its chief executive said on Thursday.
Encana -- Canada's largest natural gas producer and one of the biggest in North America -- is looking for a single partner for a package of assets that could include positions in the Collingwood shale, the Tuscaloosa Marine shale, the Mississippi Lime and the Eaglebine shale in the United States, CEO Randy Eresman told Reuters at a conference in Singapore.
All have natural gas liquids or oil potential and are in the early stages of exploration and development.
"One of the things we have been trying to do is to get more liquids, particularly oil, in our portfolio," Eresman said. "But because of the high initial cost on that, we think it might be best to reduce our risk so to accelerate that point of commercialization by bringing in another party."
Eresman compared the possible partnership with Devon Energy Corp's (DVN.N) recent deal with China's Sinopec (0386.HK), in which the U.S. energy company gave up a third of its interest in five developing fields for $2.2 billion.
He said the process could launch "in the next weeks to a month."
The company's position in Canada's Duvernay shale, an early stage gas liquids prospect in Alberta, may also be part of the offering, he said.
"We are not really sure if there is an appetite in the financial marketplace for cross-border deals, or (if) there would be separate kinds of transactions ... but in either case we are open to discussions on both of them," Eresman said.
Based on the terms of the Devon-Sinopec deal, Encana could extract around $2 billion for its offering, according to FirstEnergy Capital Corp analyst Michael Dunn, who has run the numbers on such a possibility.
Using similar calculations, in the range of $5,100 per acre, Canaccord Genuity analyst Phil Skolnick pegged the value of such a deal in the same range as Oklahoma City-based Devon's.
Top potential buyers for Encana's interests are state oil companies from Asia as well as European majors such as Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L), France's Total SA (TOTF.PA) and Norway's Statoil (STL.OL), all of which have joined shale alliances, Skolnick said.
"Devon had said that there was a huge amount of interest when they went through their own process. It's probably not going to be a very difficult thing for Encana to find a partner," he said.
Asian-based oil companies have been major players in a frenzied rush to develop shale-gas plays in North America as domestic companies look to accelerate development of the expensive operations while cutting the pressure on their own balance sheets.
Encana, whose shares have been pressured by natural gas prices that are close to decade lows due to a continent-wide oversupply of the fuel, was behind many of its competitors in shifting its focus toward gas liquids, which are priced like oil rather than natural gas.
It has a target to lift such output to 80,000 barrels a day by 2015 from around 25,000 today.
With current low prices for dry gas, the company expects to have an average of 250 million cubic feet a day of unprofitable dry gas off-line this year.
Encana shares were down 45 Canadian cents, or 2 percent, at C$19.70 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Thursday.
Encana is no stranger to joint ventures on its holdings.
The most recent was last month, when it agreed to sell a 40 percent share of its massive Cutbank Ridge gas field in British Columbia to Japan's Mitsubishi Corp (8058.T) in a C$2.9 billion deal that brought both upfront money and an agreement from the buyer to fund much of the development.
That deal replaced a more extensive C$5.4 billion ($5.4 billion) transaction with PetroChina (601857.SS), which collapsed in June 2010 when the two sides could not agree on the final terms.
Overall, Encana is looking to sell $3 billion worth of assets this year. ($1=$0.999 Canadian)
Writing by Michael Erman in New York and Jeffrey Jones in Calgary. Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Carol Bishopric