* Chevron takes half interest in Kitimat LNG
* Buys out Encana, EOG stakes and becomes operator
* Adds exploration lands in northern British Columbia
* Apache to net $400 million
* Terms undisclosed, analyst estimates Encana, EOG paid $450 mln
By Scott Haggett
CALGARY, Alberta, Dec 24 (Reuters) - Chevron Corp said on Monday it will enter the Canadian liquefied natural gas business with the acquisition of the 50 percent stake in the Kitimat LNG project held by Encana Corp and EOG Resources Inc.
Chevron will take Encana's and EOG's 30 percent stakes in the LNG-export project for an undisclosed price as the No.2 U.S. oil company looks to jumpstart North American natural gas exports.
It will also buy the two companies' interest in a pipeline serving the project, at Kitimat, 650 kilometers (400 miles) north of Vancouver, and will pay $550 million for a half stake in 644,000 acres of exploration lands in the Horn River and Liard shale-gas fields owned by Apache Corp.
Apache will then pay Chevron $150 million to raise its stake in the British Columbia project and associated lands to 50 percent, netting the U.S. independent oil and gas producer $400 million from the transaction.
Analysts say the addition of a deep-pocketed partner increases the likelihood that the multi-billion dollar Kitimat LNG -- the most advanced of a handful of gas-export facilities slated for British Columbia's northern coast -- will be completed.
"With Chevron involved it will happen sooner than it otherwise would have," said Michael Dunn, an analyst with FirstEnergy Capital.
Though no price was given, Robert Morris, an analyst with Citi Research, estimates that Encana and EOG each received about $450 million for their stakes and the exploration lands.
Kitimat LNG was last year awarded Canada's first LNG export license by the National Energy Board, allowing it to export 10 million tons of LNG per year. The project is slated to begin shipping gas to Asian markets by 2017.
Other Canadian LNG facilities are planned by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Malaysia's Petronas, BG Group Plc and others, making British Columbia a rival to the U.S. Gulf coast, where nine projects have been announced and one, Cheniere Energy Inc's, Sabine Pass project, is already under construction.
Chevron has existing LNG projects in Australia, Africa and South America. Adding the Canadian operation will let it tap high-priced export markets and escape a domestic gas market that remains depressed because of burgeoning production from shale gas fields.
"This investment grows our global LNG portfolio and builds upon our LNG construction, operations and marketing capabilities," George Kirkland, Chevron's vice chairman, said in a statement. "It is ideally situated to meet rapidly growing demand for reliable, secure, and cleaner-burning fuels in Asia, which are projected to approximately double from current levels by 2025."
Encana said the sale of its stake was consistent with its plan to focus on its core natural gas business and that the deal will reduce its future capital commitments while EOG will now focus on U.S. crude oil production.
The acquisition is expected to close it the first quarter of 2013.
Chevron shares fell $1.00 to $108.71 by early afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange while Apache fell $1.35 to $78.65 and EOG dropped 72 cents to $122.83
Encana shares were down 51 Canadian cents at C$19.62 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.