* Net income falls 26 pct to C$334 million
* Comparable earnings of C$0.55/shr match estimate
* First phase of Keystone nears completion
* Shares up 1.6 pct (Updates shares. In U.S. dollars unless noted)
By Scott Haggett
CALGARY, Alberta, May 1 (Reuters) - First-quarter profit at TransCanada Corp (TRP.TO) sagged 26 percent from a year earlier quarter that was burnished by a big one-time gain, the country's biggest power and pipeline firm said on Friday.
TransCanada, which has expanded its gas pipeline network across much of North America and built up its power generation business, earned C$334 million ($280 million), or 54 Canadian cents a share, down from C$449 million, or 83 Canadian cents, in the first quarter of 2008.
The company is just a months away from completing the first phase of its $12 billion Keystone pipeline, which will eventually carry 1.1 million barrels of oil sands crude a day from Alberta to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast.
Hal Kvisle, TransCanada's chief executive, told reporters that oil shipments to refineries in the Wood River, Illinois, region could begin early next year or sooner, as it completes the first, $5.2 billion, phase of the Keystone line.
"Deliveries to Wood River will be commencing in the first-quarter of 2010, though they might commence a little earlier than that," Kvisle said.
Kvisle said that the timing of deliveries into the refining hub depended on how long it took to fill the new pipe with its initial volumes of oil, with deliveries potentially beginning late this year.
TransCanada, which has the backing of Alaska to build a pipeline to carry natural gas from the state's Arctic coast to southern markets, has launched initial engineering work for the $26 billion project and expects to ask producers to commit to shipping their gas on the line in the summer of next year.
TransCanada said its comparable earnings, which exclude one-time items like a C$279 million gain from a court settlement that swelled earnings in the first quarter of 2008, rose 5.2 percent to C$343 million, or 55 Canadian cents a share, from C$326 million, or 60 Canadian cents, before the company issued shares in the latter half of 2008.
The comparable result matched analyst profit expectations, according to Reuters Estimates.
"There were no big surprises," said Lanny Pendill, an analyst at Edward Jones. He said the comparable earnings rose "primarily on higher earnings from the U.S. pipeline business ... while the power business suffered from lower sales volumes in Canada and the U.S. Northeast."
Revenue in the first quarter was C$2.380 billion, compared to C$2.133 billion in the first three months of 2008.
TransCanada shares rose 47 Canadian cents, or 1.6 percent, to C$30.25 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Friday.
$1=$1.19 Canadian Additional reporting by Pav Jordan; editing by Rob Wilson