Columbia Gas parent target of takeover speculation

By

January 23, 2014

The company that owns Columbia Gas of Ohio is the subject of ongoing speculation that it might be acquired soon, although the company says the talk is unfounded.

NiSource, based in northwestern Indiana, has said it will not comment on rumors.

The talk of a purchase intensified last month with reports in the financial media that Dominion, a Virginia-based utility, was looking at buying a Midwestern utility.

Subsequent reports have named NiSource as one of the likely candidates, leading to several surges in activity on the company’s stock.

Dominion has a market capitalization of $39 billion compared with $11 billion for NiSource. Both companies have a substantial presence in Ohio as natural-gas utilities and operators of gas pipelines.

Dominion owns the gas utility, Dominion East Ohio, that serves much of the northeastern part of the state, while NiSource’s Columbia Gas serves a territory that includes Columbus and Toledo.

“It could be strategically attractive for Dominion to go after” NiSource, said Philip Adams, an analyst for Gimme Credit, an independent credit-research firm.

That said, he thinks a deal would have made much more sense a year ago, when NiSource’s share price was lower. “Timing is everything, and sometimes people don’t have their ducks in a row,” he said.

While a Dominion purchase of NiSource might make sense on paper, Morningstar analyst Charles Fishman doubts that it will happen.

“What drives these things so often is the people issues,” he said. “I don’t think (NiSource CEO) Bob Skaggs is ready to retire.”

He thinks it is more likely that Dominion and NiSource would collaborate on a joint venture that will include their pipeline and gas-processing assets.

“These things are difficult to predict,” he said.

Mike Banas, a NiSource spokesman, declined to address the speculation.

“We don’t comment on unfounded market or media speculation,” he said in an email. “We are pleased with our current portfolio of businesses and have a solid, well-established plan that is consistently delivering value for customers, investors and other key stakeholders.”

Dominion also declined to comment.

NiSource has about 1,200 employees in central Ohio; most of them work for Columbia Gas, which is based in Columbus.

In addition to the Ohio utility, NiSource has gas-utility companies in five other states and an electricity utility in Indiana, along with its pipeline business and other assets.

dgearino@dispatch.com

@dispatchenergy