By Nerijus Adomaitis and Nora Buli
OSLO (Reuters) - Norway's Equinor beat first-quarter profit expectations on Thursday, driven by strong results in energy trading, although earnings were below last year's record amid a sharp fall in natural gas prices.
The oil and gas producer said adjusted profit before interest and tax for January-March fell to $12 billion from $18 billion a year earlier, but exceeded the $11.2 billion predicted in a poll of 26 analysts compiled by Equinor.
Shares in Equinor rose 3.1% by 1049 GMT, outperforming a European index of oil and gas companies which was up around 0.7%.
"We are presenting strong results. We are the biggest supplier of gas to Europe and take this responsibility seriously," CEO Anders Opedal told a news conference.
The majority state-owned company last year became Europe's largest supplier of natural gas after Russia's Gazprom cut deliveries in response to the West's support for Ukraine, sending European gas prices to all-time highs.
Despite Equinor's average gas sales price to Europe declining by 37% year-on-year in the first quarter, its output from the Norwegian continental shelf rose by 1% year-on-year.
Natural gas accounted for more than 55% of Equinor's total petroleum output of 2.13 million barrels of oil equivalent in the quarter, "contributing to European energy security", the company said.
"We are seeing strong gas demand in the second quarter and we will continue to produce as much as we can," said Opedal.
The risk of gas price spikes in Europe still lingers, he later told Reuters.
He also said Equinor planned to test "soon" if its giant Johan Sverdrup oilfield could increase production capacity to 755,000 boed from the current 720,000 boed.
Svedrup produces medium-heavy crude oil similar to Urals, which came as a suitable replacement for some European refineries after the European Union banned imports of Russian seaborne crude last December.
STRONG TRADING RESULTS
Equinor beat market expectations thanks to better-than-expected results across all of its divisions, but the key driver was "very strong" profits from energy trading, RBC analyst Biraj Borkhataria said in a note.
Its marketing, midstream and processing division's pre-tax profit of $1.28 billion beat an average analyst forecast for earnings of $986 million, Equinor's report showed.
The result was also well above Equinor's own guidance of $400 million-$800 million for the division's earnings, "mainly driven by crude, products, and liquids trading", it added.
The company maintained its quarterly cash dividend at $0.9 per share and confirmed plans to return to shareholders this year a total of $17 billion, including $6 billion in share buybacks.
"The $17 billion remains very firm," Chief Financial Officer Torgrim Reitan told a call with analysts.
(Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis and Nora Buli, editing by Terje Solsvik, Gwladys Fouche and Susan Fenton)