By Nerijus Adomaitis

OSLO (Reuters) – Norway’s Aker BP slashed its dividend by two-thirds on Wednesday, making it the latest oil firm to curtail payments to shareholders as crude prices fell sharply amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Along with previously announced cost reductions, lower capital spending and a $1.5 billion bond raised in January, cutting the payout to owners will allow Aker BP to preserve cash for acquisitions, it said.

“We are continuing to assess the growth opportunities, both organic and inorganic,” Chief Executive Karl Johnny Hersvik told investors while presenting the company’s first-quarter results.

“Our ambition is not only to survive this crisis, our ambition is to come out of this crisis as even stronger company,” he added.

Aker BP was forged during the 2014-2016 downturn in energy markets when oil firm Det norske, controlled by Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Roekke, made a string of acquisitions and a deal to merge with BP’s unit in Norway.

The resulting company, 30% owned by Britain’s BP Plc, now plans to pay $70.8 million in dividend to owners in each of the last three quarters of 2020, or $0.1967 per share, down from $212.5 million, or $0.5901, in the first quarter.

The cut follows similar reductions last month by oil major Royal Dutch Shell as well as local rivals Equinor and Lundin Energy.

Aker BP, which originally planned to increase its payout by another $100 million each year until 2023, said its ambition was now to pay “attractive” cash dividends going forward, based on oil prices, the COVID-19 situation and its financial position.

Sparebank 1 Markets analyst Teodor Sveen-Nilsen said he expected Aker BP to raise its dividend to $550 million in 2021 and $650 million in 2022 from $425 million this year.

Aker BP’s January-March earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) came in at $666 million, compared with $539 million a year ago, outperforming a $617 million forecast in a Refinitiv poll of analysts.

It maintained its plan to produce 205,000-220,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd) this year despite the Norwegian government’s decision to slash output in support of the OPEC+ effort to bring down global supply.

The company said the decision would mean a pro-rata impact on its 2020 production of 5,000-10,000 boepd, while it expects the government to clarify field production allowances within the next week or so.

Its first-quarter petroleum production stood at a record of 208,100 boepd, helped by the ramp-up of the Equinor-operated Johan Sverdrup oilfield, where it holds a 11.6% stake.

Its Oslo-listed shares were down 2.8% by 1151 GMT, underperforming a wider European oil and gas index, which was down 1.1%.

(Editing by Terje Solsvik, Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Alison Williams)