* Energy retailer sells oil and gas production assets
* IPO to be Australia’s biggest since 2014
* Focus returns to more stable retail business (Recasts, adds CEO quote, market context)
By Byron Kaye and Tom Westbrook
SYDNEY, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Australia’s top energy retailer Origin Energy Ltd plans to sell some oil and gas producing assets in a listing tipped to fetch A$1 billion ($750 million), cutting debt and joining its main rival in reducing exposure to upstream production.
The move by newly installed CEO Frank Calabria sets up Australia’s biggest initial public offering since 2014 and underscores the desire of the country’s energy companies to refocus on their more stable retail gas and power businesses.
It also gives a sense of the speed at which Calabria plans to put his stamp on the company he took over in October. A month before Calabria started, Origin Chairman Gordon Cairns told Reuters the company had no plans to demerge.
“The decision is my decision but ... it is also something we’ve done quite bit of work around,” Calabria told journalists on a teleconference on Tuesday, noting that his predecessor, Grant King, planned to sell A$800 million of assets by 2017 to cut debt.
He denied the company was forced to abandon King’s all-in-one energy strategy because of weak oil and gas prices, saying he decided on the IPO because “we needed to reduce debt and focus on the underlying performance of the business”.
Australia’s No. 2 energy retailer AGL Energy Ltd said in February it was quitting the coal-seam gas business because the plunging oil price had undermined the economics of its projects. It has also said it will exit coal-fired power stations by 2050.
Origin will keep a stake in Australia Pacific LNG, a 9 million-tonnes-a-year project co-owned by ConocoPhillips and China’s Sinopec off Australia’s east coast, which the company cannot spin off until it has met all of its project finance commitments, expected in mid-2017.
Origin and AGL, which together sell electricity to a third of Australia’s 24 million population, have meanwhile ramped up plans to sell rooftop and industrial-grade solar power, as well as storage batteries from makers like Tesla Motors Inc.
Origin did not say how much it hopes to raise in the 2017 IPO, but its shares rose as much as 5 percent, hitting their highest intraday level in a year, as investors took a positive view of the simplified company structure. The broader market was up 0.8 percent.
“We think Origin’s strategy is logical,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in a note to clients.
Morgan Stanley estimated the assets being sold were worth A$1.3 billion, while Standard and Poor’s estimated the spin-off to be worth at least A$1 billion and Royal Bank of Canada said the business would have an enterprise value, which includes debt, of between A$1.6 billion and A$1.8 billion.
The proposed IPO will not require shareholder approval, Origin said. ($1 = 1.3383 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Byron Kaye; Editing by Richard Pullin)