* Spends C$1 bln on new natural gas properties
* Sees no quick rebound in gas prices
* Awaits cost estimate for Horizon expansion
* Shares fall 1.9 pct
By Scott Haggett
CALGARY, Alberta, May 7 (Reuters) - Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNQ.TO) plans to spend as much as C$1 billion ($960 million) to buy natural gas properties in Alberta and British Columbia, gambling the price of the fuel will eventually rebound.
The company, Canada's biggest independent oil and gas producer, said on Friday it's bulking up on natural gas properties while prices for the fuel are low, anticipating that gas prices will eventually return to more normal levels.
"We have allocated about a billion dollars ... to augment our capital expenditures on a number of property acquisitions in our core operating regions of northwest Alberta and northeast British Columbia," John Langille, Canadian Natural's vice-chairman, said on a conference call. "These properties will provide additional production volumes and cash flow after the acquisitions are closed later in the second quarter."
Benchmark natural gas prices currently range around $4 per million British thermal units, well below the more than $13 per mmBtu the clean-burning fuel commanded in mid-2008, before the recession took hold.
The price has been depressed as weak industrial demand and rising production from shale gas reserves in the United States boost the amount of fuel in storage to record levels.
"We believe gas prices will come back to reasonable levels," said Steve Laut, the company's president. "It might take two or three years before that happens."
The company offered little detail on its new properties or on the sellers. However the acquisitions will add 28,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day of new production.
The company's oil and gas output averaged 610,556 boed over the first quarter.
Canadian Natural said on Thursday its first-quarter profit more than doubled to C$866 million on strengthening oil prices and new production from its Horizon oil sands project in northern Alberta.
Horizon output averaged 86,995 bpd, up from just 3,384 bpd in the first quarter of last year, when the plant was starting up.
The company plans to expand the plant's capacity from 110,000 bpd to 232,000 bpd and expects to make a decision on whether to go ahead with the plan to raise output after it has a detailed cost estimate, expected by year end.
"We will be sanctioning the expansion of Horizon but only when we can be assured that reasonable cost certainty can be achieved," Laut said. "We are not there yet."
Canadian Natural shares were down C$1.46 at C$71.24 early on Friday afternoon on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
$1=$1.04 Canadian Editing by Peter Galloway