UPDATE 2-Natgas producer EQT to spin off midstream operations amid investor pressure

pressure@ (Adds details on separation, analyst comment, updates shares)

Feb 21 (Reuters) - Oil and gas producer EQT Corp said on Wednesday it would spin off its midstream business to create a standalone publicly traded company, yielding to months of pressure from shareholders.

Hedge funds D.E. Shaw & Co and Jana Partners had pushed for a break-up of the company ever since it bought Rice Energy for $6.7 billion last year, saying a separation of its production and pipeline assets would ensure better shareholder returns.

Under the deal, designed to be tax-free for EQT's shareholders, the company will merge its midstream assets with those of Rice Energy and then spin off the entity.

The company had hinted at the breakup last year following the deal when it said it would address the "sum-of-the-parts discount" in its share price following the Rice Energy deal.

EQT's shares have fallen 20.4 percent since closing the Rice Energy deal. The stock was up 7 percent at $55 in premarket trading on Wednesday.

Following the spin-off, expected to be completed by the end of the third quarter, the new midstream company will become the third-largest natural gas gathering hub in the United States, the company said.

The separation will also help narrow EQT's focus to its exploration and production business, or upstream assets, as oil prices rise and U.S. shale production surges.

"As a stand-alone upstream entity, EQT plans to deliver a competitive 10-15 percent growth rate and $2.3-2.8 billion of free cash flow over 2019-2023. The structure of the simplification is consistent with our expectations," RBC Capital Markets analyst Scott Hanold said.

Midstream companies transport oil and natural gas through pipelines and store them at gathering stations or hubs, bridging the gap between producers and refiners.

Some analysts were expecting the separation of units to take longer, with Hanold saying he expected the break-up by the end of this year.

EQT's current senior vice president Jerry Ashcroft will take up the job of CEO at the new company. (Reporting by Ahmed Farhatha, Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)