MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) _ Dow Chemical Co.'s fourth-quarter earnings met Wall Street's expectations despite dipping slightly on more than $500 million in higher energy costs.

The Midland, Mich.-based company on Thursday reported net earnings of $243 million, or 36 cents a share, on $5.3 billion in sales for the three months ended Dec. 31. That compares with $267 million, or 40 cents a share, on $5.2 billion in sales during the same period in 1999.

Analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial were expecting 36 cents per share.

Dow Chemical said a spike in North American natural gas prices drove its hydrocarbon and energy costs up by more than $500 million in the fourth quarter.

For the year, Dow Chemical earned $1.51 billion, or $2.22 per share, on sales of $21.9 billion. In the previous year, the company earned $1.33 billion, or $1.98 per share, on sales of $18.9 billion.

Dow Chemical's 16 percent increase in 2000 sales over the previous year was attributed partly to a 9 percent price increase and 7 percent gain in volume.

Dow Chemical still awaits regulatory approval of its plans to merge with Union Carbide Corp. of Danbury, Conn., in a deal that would create the world's second-largest chemical business behind DuPont.

Michael Parker, Dow Chemical's president and chief executive, said ``we expect challenging conditions to continue'' through June, including volatile oil and energy prices coupled with the slowing U.S. economy.

``However, we anticipate some recovery staring mid-year,'' Parker said in a statement. ``Continued emphasis on cost controls and management of working capital will be a key point of Dow's focus as we move through the year.''

Shares of Dow Chemical were up 37.5 cents to close at $32.38 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.