May 1 (Reuters) - ConocoPhillips, the largest U.S. independent oil and gas company, reported a flat quarterly profit on Thursday that beat expectations on higher prices and output from North American shale and growth in its Canadian oilsands projects.
"Higher commodity prices definitely helped Conoco," said Brian Youngberg, analyst at Edward Jones in Saint Louis. "Their growth focus on the Eagle Ford and Bakken oil continue to benefit the company as they try diversify away form natural gas."
Conoco, which shed its refining operations in 2012, is investing heavily to drill in rock formations like the Eagle Ford in south Texas, where returns are higher and projects have less risk.
The company earned a profit of $2.1 billion, or $1.71 per share, in the three months through March 31, little changed from the $2.1 billion, or $1.73 a share, it earned a year earlier.
Excluding one-time items related to storage and transportation agreements, Conoco had a profit of $1.81 a share.
Analysts, on average, had expected a profit, excluding items, of $1.56 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Shares of Conoco were up 1.12 percent at $75.14 in premarket trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
The "main driver" that helped Conoco beat earnings estimates was higher-than expected prices for the Houston company's oilsands bitumen and natural gas production in the lower 48 states, energy-focused investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt said in a note to clients.
Conoco realized an average price of $56.47 per barrel for its bitumen in the first quarter, up sharply from $39.23 a barrel a year ago, according to company data.
Output from the Eagle Ford and Bakken Shale in North Dakota hit peak daily rates in the quarter, said Conoco.
(Reporting by Anna Driver; Editing by Bernadette Baum)
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