Higher output and favorable crude oil prices at the St. Paul Park refinery are bringing in profit for its owner.

Northern Tier Energy, based in Ridgefield, Conn., with operations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, reported quarterly operating income Tuesday of $199.4 million, up 22 percent from the third quarter a year ago. The company, which operates as a master limited partnership, also announced its first distribution to owners of its partnership units.

The third-quarter results surpassed analysts' forecast $150 million operating profit for the company, sending the price of its publicly traded units up nearly 3.7 percent to a record $24.50. The units priced at $14 when the company went public July 25.

Executives said the higher profit came from the refinery, thanks to higher margins per barrel and increased output at the refinery.

"We think we are going to continue to enjoy a significant cost advantage for our crude at St. Paul," CEO Mario Rodriguez told analysts on a conference call.

Northern Tier also has 166 company-operated and 67 franchised SuperAmerica stores, which it acquired with the refinery from Marathon Oil Corp in 2010.

But operating income at SuperAmerica stores fell during the quarter because of pump-price competition on gasoline that hurt margins, executives said.

Crude oil supply

The St. Paul Park refinery got 52 percent of its oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota and the rest from Canada during the quarter, said Maria Testani, the company's director of planning and strategy.

The company co-owns a 300-mile pipeline that supplies the refinery from a terminal at Clearbrook, Minn., a portal for Canadian and Bakken crude whose prices often are lower than for oil from elsewhere.

Northern Tier said improved productivity at the St. Paul Park refinery increased its quarterly throughput by 4 percent to 87,476 barrels per day compared with the output a year ago.

The company reported adjusted earnings before interest, taxes and amortization expenses of $249.5 million for the third quarter, up 39 percent, or $70 million, from a year ago. It also reported quarterly net income of $61.1 million, up from $2.2 million last year. Net income takes into account derivative losses, interest and taxes and follows generally accepted accounting principles.

Unlike most master limited partnerships, Northern Tier does not promise investors a guaranteed distribution. Its first quarterly distribution will be $1.48 per share. But executives warned that the cyclical nature of refining and retailing makes future distributions uncertain.

The publicly traded units have risen steadily since their weak opening in July at $14 per unit, far short of the $19 to $21 range the company expected.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090