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Chesapeake: debt-paring target may be pushed into 2013

Chesapeake Energy Corporation's 50 acre campus is seen in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Steve Sisney
Chesapeake Energy Corporation's 50 acre campus is seen in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Steve Sisney

By Anna Driver

(Reuters) - Chesapeake Energy Corp's target to pare debt to $9.5 billion or less by the end of the year may be pushed into 2013, along with some deal closings, the company's chief financial officer told analysts on Friday.

Shares of the U.S. oil and gas company slumped 6 percent to $18.87 on word of the delays.

"We remain absolutely committed to reducing our net long term debt to no more than $9.5 billion and if not achieved December 31, 2012, we expect to accomplish this number one goal in early 2013," CFO Domenic Dell'Osso said during a conference call to discuss the company's third-quarter earnings.

Chesapeake has about $16 billion in long-term debt, up from $11 billion last quarter, according to the company's latest balance sheet.

The Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, company on Thursday reported a third-quarter net loss of $2.1 billion compared with a year-ago profit, as low natural gas prices caused it to write down the value of some assets.

The company's largest investors, Carl Icahn and Mason Hawkins - who now control the nine-member board of directors - have urged the company to cut the debt acquired in recent years through heavy spending on oil and gas properties.

To help achieve that, Chesapeake has pledged to sell up to $14 billion in assets this year, but the expected closing dates of some announced sales have not always lined up as planned.

Phil Weiss, oil analyst for Argus research, said Chesapeake has promised quite a bit but has yet to deliver much, a situation that is weighing on the stock.

"They still say they are going to lower debt and they still need to complete asset sales," Weiss said. "And they just admitted they are having trouble."

Pending deals include Global Infrastructure Partners' planned $2.7 billion purchase of some of Chesapeake's natural gas gathering and processing equipment, or so-called midstream assets.

The company is also marketing acreage in the Mississippi Lime formation and has acreage in the Eagle Ford shale in Texas for sale as well as some properties in Oklahoma.

It is possible "that some of oil and gas sales transactions scheduled for Q4 could actually close in Q1 2013," Dell'Osso told analysts.

Last spring, Chesapeake initially sought an Asian partner for a joint venture in its 2 million acres in the Mississippi Lime formation in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. But now, Chesapeake has had to change its marketing tactics, Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake's chief executive officer, told analysts.

"It's been a very long and frustrating process," McClendon said, noting that there have been "recent turns in the approval process for foreign companies" investing in the United States, a factor that made the company drop its search for an Asian partner.

Now, Chesapeake is in talks with a number of companies over a partnership or outright sale of part of its Mississippi Lime acreage, McClendon said.

And the pending midstream deal is "just a big, complicated process with lots of paper to move" that involves Chesapeake's partners and spans multiple oil and gas basins, Dell'Osso said.

(Reporting by Anna Driver in Houston; editing by Bernadette Baum and Matthew Lewis)

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