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Updated from 12:22 p.m. EDT


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, one of the world's largest independent oil producers, on Wednesday reported a more than fivefold increase in its quarterly earnings, but still fell just short of Wall Street estimates.

The El Segundo, Calif.-based company said it earned $228 million, or 92 cents per share, from continuing operations in the third quarter, excluding special items and a $14 million after-tax gain from the sale of its agricultural products business. That's up sharply from a year ago when Unocal reported third-quarter profits of $44 million, or 19 cents per share.

On average, analysts surveyed by

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First Call/Thomson Financial

had expected the company to earn 93 cents per share in the third quarter of 2000.

In a statement, Unocal chairman and chief executive Roger Beach attributed the strong earnings growth to the surge in oil and gas prices and to production capacity improvements, particularly at its North American facilities. Third-quarter earnings from Unocal's North American exploration and production business more than quintupled, to $136 million from $25 million in the same year-ago period.

Unocal's net daily production of oil and natural gas worldwide averaged 511,000 barrels in the third quarter, up 4% from 491,000 in the same period a year ago.

Beach said Unocal is projecting earnings between 90 cents and 95 cents per share for the fourth quarter, depending on the amount of oil produced from its new deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico and other factors. The estimates are based on the assumption that benchmark West Texas crude oil prices will remain at or above $31 through year's end.

For the fiscal year 2000, Unocal estimates earnings will be between $3.08 and $3.13 per share, assuming an average crude oil price of $30 a barrel for the year. The consensus among analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial calls for earnings of 91 cents in the fourth quarter and $3.08 per share for the full year.

Unocal finished Wednesday regular down $1.31, or 4%, at $33.62.