(Adds detail from conference call)
By Anna Driver
HOUSTON, July 31 (Reuters) - U.S. oil and gas company Apache Corp, under pressure from activist investor Jana Partners, said on Thursday it plans to sell interests in two liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects as it sharpens the focus on developing North American shale fields.
The move, a significant pullback from the LNG market, relieved investors worried about the potential project costs. Apache shares rose to their highest level in more than two years.
Apache reported that profits fell in the second quarter, but still topped expectations.
Apache said it intends to completely exit LNG projects - in which it partners with Chevron Corp - in Wheatstone in Australia and Kitimat in Canada. Apache is also evaluating its international assets for a potential spinoff to shareholders, outright sale or other options, Chief Executive Officer Steve Farris told analysts on a conference call.
“In our opinion, it makes sense that we reduce the size of our international assets,” Farris said, noting that the company’s North American and international units “are two different businesses.”
Jana, which disclosed in June it had a $1 billion stake in Apache, has urged the Houston-based company to exit the Canadian and Australian projects and focus on drilling onshore in the United States.
Over the last year, Apache has sold $10 billion worth of assets to focus its drilling on more profitable and predictable shale oil wells in places like the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford in South Texas.
“Apache is really trying to focus on domestic oil production,” said Brian Youngberg, an analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis. “The question is, For a company the size of Apache, do they need to be involved in big legacy LNG projects that need a lot of cash upfront?”
The $15 billion Kitimat LNG project in British Columbia is the most advanced of the dozen or more LNG plants that have been proposed for Canada’s Pacific coast, though rival projects by Malaysia’s Petronas and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are gaining ground.
Originally proposed as a regasification facility for LNG imports, the Kitimat site has environmental approvals in hand. Early construction has begun, and plans for a pipeline from northern British Columbia’s shale-gas fields to the facility are well under way and face limited opposition from Aboriginal groups.
For companies that want to supply the Asian market, taking a stake in the Kitimat facility could speed those plans.
Still, Kitimat has yet to get a final investment decision from Chevron and has been under review since the company bought into the project alongside Apache in December 2012.
It also needs to finalize LNG sales agreements.
Chevron has said publicly it was concerned about costs, given Kitimat’s location in a remote part of British Columbia.
Chevron said in a statement that it will discuss its view of the project when it reports earnings on Friday. Previously, the San Ramon, California-based company has said that it has no interest in becoming sole owner in the Kitimat project, or even increasing its stake beyond 50 percent.
One source involved in LNG trade said Kitimat is struggling.
Apache’s Farris said his company’s exit from the project will not affect its valuation.
“Frankly, Chevron and Apache are way ahead of anyone else in that arena,” Farris said.
Apache reported second-quarter profit fell to $505 million, or $1.31 per share, from $1.02 billion, or $2.54, in the same period a year earlier.
Excluding one-time items, Apache posted a profit of $1.67 per share. Analysts, on average, expected $1.65, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Apache shares rose $1.00, or 1 percent, to $102.29 in afternoon trade. (Additional reporting by Scott Haggett in Calgary, Ernest Scheyder in New York and Oleg Vukmanovic in Milan; Editing by Terry Wade, Jeffrey Benkoe and Leslie Adler)