It's official: Eastern Ohio is the place to be. Forget the Marcellus: Natural-gas producers have decided the Utica Shale is The Next Big Thing.
What we have here, Fools, is a good-ol'-fashioned land grab. Much to no one's surprise, Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) , the second-largest natural-gas producer in the United States, controls 1.25 million acres already. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) is also on board, though it's playing the shy, silent type and refuses to disclose any information other than that it has acquired land. Finally, Hess, refusing to be left out, secured 185,000 acres earlier this month.
Here is a snapshot of some other companies seeking to lay claim to a portion of the 108 million acres (170,000 square miles) that make up the Utica Shale.
(NYSE: DVN )
|EV Energy Partners
(Nasdaq: EVEP )
(Nasdaq: REXX )
(Nasdaq: GPOR )
|Magnum Hunter Resources
(NYSE: MHR )
Source: Yahoo! Finance.
Chesapeake definitely has every advantage going into this Battle Royale. The company plans to profit from drilling 12,500 wells on part of its land and shopping the rest of it to the other drillers.
Analysts are encouraging investors to consider the smaller outfits like Rex Energy, Gulfport Energy, and Magnum Hunter Resources for two reasons. First, although it's important for ExxonMobil to establish itself in the play, success here isn't likely to set its stock price on fire, as it would a smaller company. Second, success for a small outfit in the Utica can make it much more desirable for potential buyers in an industry that's hot for mergers and acquisitions right now. Gulfport Energy plans to begin drilling its 30,000 acres next year.
Things to keep an eye on
There are two potential glitches to success in the Utica Shale: resource uncertainty and the environmental issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Only 16 wells have been drilled in the Utica so far. Most companies claim that the area is geologically similar to other successful shale plays, but it's really too early to say for sure, especially given the region's size. Take Chesapeake, for example: It has the largest holding and has done extensive testing, but only on nine wells.
The other problem for the Utica is the fierce battle over fracking. Though initial drilling is off the less infamous vertical variety, horizontal fracking will commence once wells have been drilled deep enough to penetrate the shale.
Regardless of your stance on this particular method of drilling, to say the controversy has caused some problems for energy companies is an understatement. It's become so contentious that some New York landowners are trying to get out of their leases with drillers and in Pennsylvania, and two residents personally paid for anti-drilling billboards. And this wouldn't be America without costly lawsuits, so there are a few of those to go around as well.
Foolish bottom line
Companies looking to make the most out of the Utica play will have to do a better job communicating with the public to avoid the sort of problems that follow hydraulic fracturing wherever it goes. If they can do that and the play yields as much gas as E&P outfits think it will, investors will have a bevy of drillers to choose from.
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