Murphy Oil Corp. said Tuesday it is spinning off its downstream operations to focus on North American and overseas exploration and production (E&P) opportunities.

The El Dorado, AR-based company said the split would create a separately traded downstream subsidiary, Murphy Oil USA Inc. (Murphy USA), which would consist of its retail petroleum marketing business and retail gasoline stations. Additionally, Murphy USA’s assets would include seven product distribution terminals and two ethanol production facilities in North Dakota and Texas.

“Separating these two businesses will allow each to unlock its own potential for growth,” said Chairman Claiborne Deming. “We have built two strong but distinct businesses. Murphy will be a pure-play exploration and production company with strong returns and attractive investment opportunities, while Murphy USA will be a leading retailer with over 1,100 retail gasoline outlets.” Murphy also disclosed that it plans to sell its UK downstream operations and is “continuing to review possible options with respect to selected assets.”

The announcement comes just a week after activist investor fund Third Point, which is run by Daniel Loeb, won U.S. antitrust approval from the Federal Trade Commission to buy an unspecified stake in the company. Loeb had urged Murphy to sell its downstream operations, the Canadian operations and its UK refining business to build value in the E&P arm, which he said could be 60% higher.

On news of the split at midday Tuesday Murphy shares were trading up by about 8.73% at $64.15 compared with $55.00 on Oct. 1.

With its focus only on E&P, Murphy Oil Corp. would use its North American capital for opportunities onshore and offshore.

In the United States the producer has stakes in eight Gulf of Mexico (GOM) deepwater fields, two onshore fields in Louisiana and the Eagle Ford Shale. Murphy also has holdings in the gassy Montney Shale in British Columbia, and in Alberta’s Bakken Shale and Seal heavy oil areas. It also has holdings offshore Eastern Canada.

Principal overseas E&P investments would continue to be in Malaysia; the UK operations are up for sale.

“As you know, we are very, very focused on the Eagle Ford Shale; we are developing that resource,” said CEO Steven Cosse.

Going forward Murphy plans to continue its exploration programs and offshore development, which would be complemented by “predictable” onshore growth in North America, primarily from the Eagle Ford and Alberta’s Seal areas.

“I don’t think we’ll do much different on the E&P front as we do now as a result of this,” Cosse said. However, separating the businesses will allow the E&P business to have “more proceeds to redeploy…more organic spending…” Mergers and acquisitions “aren’t out of the question” but today’s competitive market makes them “harder to accomplish to add to the portfolio.”

Murphy has 173 leases in the GOM with plans to drill up to four exploration wells through next year. Total production from the deepwater averaged about 17,000 boe/d in 2011 and is targeted to be about the same this year. In the GOM, Murphy operates Thunder Hawk (37.5%) in Mississippi Canyon (MS) Block 734; Medusa (60%) in MS Blocks 538/582; and Frontrunner (37.5%) in Green Canyon Blocks 338/339/382/383. Nonoperated fields include Habenero (33.75%); Mondo (50%); and Tahoe (30%).

In the U.S. onshore Murphy has accumulated more than 220,000 net acres in the Eagle Ford Shale since entering the play in 2009. The play is divided into four distinct operational areas: Karnes, Tilden and Catarina all in the oil window of the play, and Nueces in the dry gas area. The first oil development in Karnes was sanctioned in December 2010. Murphy now has more than 60 producing wells and plans to achieve 15,000 boe/d of net production by the end of the year.

In Canada Murphy has almost 156,000 net acres in the Montney tight gas play; first gas production at its Tupper Main facility ramped up in December 2008, and plant capacity was recently expanded to 105 MMcf/d. The Tupper West project, sanctioned in August 2009, is a two-phase development plan involving 275 wells in the first phase with a further 244 wells in the second phase. At the Seal heavy oil project Murphy has more than 180,000 net acres of land. Production rates exceed 6,000 b/d from operated wells, with an additional 1,500 b/d from nonoperated wells.

Murphy added about 150,000 gross acres in the Alberta Bakken Shale in 2010 and is working in the Three Forks formation. The producer also has about 170,000 acres in the Muskwa play in Alberta. Its first well had an initial production rate of 150 boe/d. Offshore Eastern Canada, Murphy owns a stake in three nonoperated assets that provide 24,000 b/d net. Hibernia (6.5%) and Terra Nova (10.48%) are in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin offshore Newfoundland. The Syncrude Canada Ltd. operation (5%) north of Fort McMurray in Alberta extracts bitumen from oilsands.

The separation is expected to be completed in 2013.

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