It might have been a dream. After reading scores of earnings releases from energy companies during the past few weeks, including ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) and a host of little guys, commodity prices have rendered them all forlorn.

And then along comes El Paso Corp. (NYSE:EP), which by most standards turned out a solid quarter. Oh sure, its reported loss included $2.07 billion in exploration and production writedowns, a number that, in the days of yore, would have boggled the mind. The company, which is both the largest natural gas transporter in the U.S. and a factor in exploration and production, reported a loss of $969 million, or $1.41 a share. Those numbers compare to a profit of $219 million, or $0.29 per share, in the first quarter of 2008. But if you back out the writedowns and other accounting items, the company actually earned $0.47 a share, versus an adjusted $0.33 in earnings a year ago.

Let's look at the two divisions. The pipeline group is apparently off to a solid start in 2009. Its earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) were up $15 million, or 4% from the prior year. And perhaps even more importantly for a pipeline, throughput rose by 2%. The improvement was based on growth in the company's Rockies pipelines, which compensated for declines elsewhere.

On the exploration and production side, the company operates in a variety of places, including -- believe it or not -- the Haynesville Shale of northern Louisiana and northeast Texas. There it cavorts with the likes of Chesapeake (NYSE:CHK), Devon (NYSE:DVN), and BP (NYSE:BP). While El Paso claims to be operating as efficiently as its industry peers on its Haynesville wells, it's not yet a major factor in the play, having completed its fifth well during the quarter. As you might have heard, everybody who is anybody seems to be at work in the Haynesville these days.

During the company's call, CEO Doug Foshee was relatively noncommittal on the direction of natural gas prices. For the longer term, he noted that "beyond 2011, the evidence suggests the case for natural gas is still really strong, especially in a carbon-constrained world ..." But in the shorter term, he's predicting "low gas prices for a sustained period of time ..."

So there you have it, the nation's biggest natural gas transporter and a significant E&P operator appears rather cautious. My inclination is to watch this quality company carefully, but seeing as how even the company's CEO predicts sustained low gas prices, I wouldn't buy its shares yet without an extended investment time frame at my disposal.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does, however, welcome your questions or comments. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.