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NEW YORK (AP) — Kinder Morgan plans to buy El Paso Corp. in a $20.7 billion deal that’s expected to create America’s largest natural gas pipeline operator.Kinder Morgan Inc. is expanding its reach as the U.S. becomes increasingly reliant on natural gas. Drillers are pumping ever-increasing amounts from underground shale deposits across the U.S. Natural gas prices have dropped to less than half their level of three years ago, and power companies are using more of the fuel because it emits fewer greenhouse gases than coal.
The deal also adds to founder and CEO Richard Kinder’s energy empire. Kinder, 66, started the company with friend William Morgan after leaving his post as president of the now-defunct Enron Corp. Forbes lists his net worth at $6.4 billion.
Kinder Morgan will more than double the size of its pipeline network by purchasing El Paso. The new pipeline system would stretch 80,000 miles — long enough to wind around the globe three times. Kinder Morgan’s pipelines in the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest and Texas will be woven together with El Paso’s expansive network that spreads east from the Gulf Coast to New England, and to the west through New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.
“We believe that natural gas is going to play an increasingly integral role in North America,” Kinder, who is also the company’s chairman, said on Sunday when the deal was announced.
Robert McFadden, a Houston-based natural gas pipeline consultant, said the expanded network will make it easier to move natural gas from new shale fields that have mushroomed across the U.S. in the past few years.
“Think of it like federal highways and toll roads,” McFadden said. “The more options you have to get from point A to B, the shorter your trip.”
Pipeline companies, which get paid for moving natural gas from the field to the market, have been in big demand recently as drillers tap rich new deposits in Pennsylvania, Montana, Utah and other states. The pipeline companies been able to keep transport fees roughly constant during the past several years, even though natural gas prices have dropped from more than $13 per 1,000 cubic feet in 2008 to less than $4, pipeline this year.
The acquisition comes on the heels of other consolidation in the industry. Energy Transfer Equity is planning to buy Southern Union Co. for $5.7 billion after a tug of war with Williams Cos.
With more pipelines under its control, Kinder Morgan could charge suppliers higher transport fees, and that may affect the price that utilities and other major natural gas buyers pay for natural gas. But home owners and other retail natural gas customers won’t notice much of a change on their monthly bills, if any. Retail gas bills are largely influenced by local distribution costs and other items that won’t change with this deal, McFadden said.
Once approved, Kinder Morgan said it will also become the largest independent transporter of gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products. It will also be the largest independent owner and operator of petroleum storage terminals. It will be the largest transporter of carbon dioxide in the U.S., moving about 1.3 billion cubic feet per day.
Kinder Morgan and El Paso are both based in Houston. Kinder will remain chairman and CEO of the combined company.
The combined company will surpass other pipeline companies like Enterprise Products Partners LP, also based in Houston. Enterprise operates about 50,200 miles of pipelines.
The companies valued the deal at $26.87 per El Paso share, which includes $14.65 in cash, 0.4187 in Kinder Morgan shares and 0.640 in Kinder Morgan warrants.
Based on El Paso’s about 770.25 million outstanding shares, the deal is worth about $20.7 billion.
Kinder Morgan is also assuming $13 billion, net of cash, of El Paso debt as part of the deal. It intends to fund the purchase with a combination of equity and more debt. But once the deal closes, the company said it plans to sell off El Paso’s exploration and production assets and the cash raised will help reduce that debt.
Kinder Morgan said the deal is expected to boost Kinder Morgan’s shareholder value through increased cash flow and future growth opportunities. It’s also expected to boost Kinder Morgan’s dividends and result in about $350 million a year in cost savings.
El Paso had announced plans to spin off its exploration and production unit in May.
The acquisition, which has been approved by the board of both companies, is expected to close in the second quarter of next year and needs regulatory approval.
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