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National Fuel Gas Co. has formed a partnership with three other energy companies to trade and ship natural gas to markets in the Midwest and East Coast, the firms said Thursday.

The new venture, called DirectLink Gas Marketing Co., was formed by National Fuel, Williams Cos., Coastal Corp. and MidCon Corp. to try to become a major player in the market to transport and sell gas coming through Chicago. Each firm will own a 25 percent stake in the partnership.

DirectLink has agreed to ship 500 million cubic feet of gas per day through the proposed Independence Pipeline from Defiance, Ohio to the natural gas pipeline hub in Leidy, Pa. DirectLink would take up about 60 percent of the pipeline's daily 838.5 million cubic foot capacity.

By agreeing to ship the gas through the Independence Pipeline, which is jointly owned by National Fuel, Williams and Coastal, the partners are supporting that project as it competes for customers with other proposed pipelines.

In addition, DirectLink is moving to position itself as a major player in the market to ship natural gas from Chicago to the eastern United States. Chicago is expected to become a hub for Canadian gas produced from new wells in Alberta and shipped to the United States on new pipelines.

"We see that there are growing markets and the opportunity to serve those markets," said Julie Coppola, a National Fuel spokeswoman.

"The Independence Pipeline offers the best route for bringing gas from the Midwest to the trading center at Leidy" that is a central link for pipelines serving the major eastern markets, said Bernard J. Kennedy, National Fuel's chairman, president and chief executive officer.

But Ms. Coppola said DirectLink is not solely linked to the Independence Pipeline project. "Its marketing efforts will go beyond the Independence Pipeline," she said. "It's not the only pipeline that DirectLink will be marketing for."

With a large number of long-term natural gas supply contracts expiring in the next three to five years, coupled with the onset of competition in many markets now served by utility monopolies, the DirectLink partners believe there is a good opportunity for them to win new business, Ms. Coppola said.

Williams runs the nation's largest-volume pipeline system, while Coastal is a major gas marketer and MidCon, an Occidental Petroleum Corp. subsidiary, sells or transports about 10 percent of the natural gas used in the United States.

Niagara groups back state convention

The Greater Niagara Government Affairs Council has voted to support the state's constitutional convention.

The council consists of the Niagara Business Alliance and the chambers of commerce for Eastern Niagara, Niagara Falls and the Tonawandas.

The convention question will appear on the November ballot.

The council also voted to support the "Get Real" regional competitiveness campaign of the Greater Buffalo Partnership.

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