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Consol Set to Unleash Appalachian NatGas Production As Coal Split Moves Forward

Consol Energy Inc. announced Tuesday that with final approval from its board, it expects to split into two separate companies next month, with the natural gas and coal businesses trading separately beginning Nov. 29.

The exploration and production (E&P) business would be rebranded as CNX Resources Corp. and keep the ticker symbol, CNX, on the New York Stock Exchange. The coal company would retain the Consol Energy Inc. name and trade under CEIX. The company, more than 150 years old, has its roots in coal, but has worked for roughly a decade to center its business on natural gas.

“It’s truly a historic day for the company, one that we’ve been working toward and talking about for some time,” said CEO Nick Deluliis, who will lead CNX after the separation. “It’s also a combination of a strategy that’s been at work for years.”

The E&P business is planning on a serious ramp in production and earnings next year as it looks to gain momentum and continue deleveraging. Consol produced 101 Bcfe in the third quarter, up from 96.4 Bcfe in the year-ago period and 92.2 Bcfe in 2Q2017.

The company is guiding for 405-415 Bcfe of annual production in 2017, and reiterated its forecast of 520-550 Bcfe next year. The turn-in-line schedule peaks in November, which management said puts the company on track to exit the year at around 1.4 Bcfe/d to set up for the ramp up in 2018.

Consol stockholders would receive one common share in the new coal company for every eight shares they own. Stockholders are also set to receive cash instead of fractional shares. The coal company has raised $800 million in new debt. The only hurdle remaining for the split is the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s approval of the registration statement.  

CNX capital and activity plans for 2018 are a work in progress, but the company plans to focus on the high-return assets. While the Marcellus Shale continued to drive volumes in the third quarter, accounting for 60.4 Bcfe, operational issues faced in Ohio’s Utica Shale during the second quarter were resolved. Utica production dropped year/year from 22.5 Bcfe to 20.1 Bcfe, but it increased by 45% sequentially. Consol expects even stronger Utica growth in the fourth quarter, driven primarily by its Monroe County, OH, assets.

“Prices were down due to the commodity pulling back, while basis further widened,” COO Tim Dugan told financial analysts on Tuesday during a call to discuss third quarter results. “That decrease was partially offset by additional cost improvements compared to the third quarter of last year. We expect [operational] costs to continue declining sequentially as Ohio dry Utica volumes make up a greater proportion of total volumes.”

A third rig is to be added in December, which was originally scheduled for early next year in southwest Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. “If you look at where our rigs are now... we’ve got three Utica wells drilling right now, two of them are operated,” Dugan said about why the company is adding a rig in the Marcellus at a time when it's been more focused on the Utica. “...The rig coming online is really just us sticking to the schedule we’ve put together and the development plan, and following that as we get wells drill-ready.”

The company is drilling deep, dry Utica wells in Indiana and Greene counties, PA, where that program “is full steam ahead,” Dugan said. The company brought its first deep Utica well online in the state two years ago at 61 MMcf/d. Consol expects to have two other step-out Utica wells near its first in Westmoreland County online in December.

Marcellus wells also were completed during the third quarter in West Virginia that were drilled between 2014 and 2015. The company has been less active on that side of the play. Deluliis said the results have “been very positive -- surprises to the upside.” Longer-term, he added, that acreage could compete “very well with the rest of our opportunity set list.”

As it works to delever the balance sheet, generate more free cash flow and fold more Ohio and Pennsylvania Utica acreage into its core position, Consol remained on track during the quarter to divest $400-600 million of noncore assets this year. The company in 3Q2017 netted $82 million after selling Marcellus acreage in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Greene counties, PA. It continues to market coalbed methane properties in Virginia and scattered acreage in the Marcellus and Utica.

Average realized prices for the third quarter dropped from $2.54/Mcfe in the year-ago period to $2.50/Mcfe. Revenue was down from $745.3 million in 3Q2016 to $671.3 million.

Consol reported a net loss of $26 million (minus 11 cents/share) in the third quarter, compared with net income of $25 million (11 cents) in 3Q2016. 

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