Since the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales took the energy industry by storm a few years back, another energy play has slowly crept into the limelight. It's the Utica shale -- an up-and-coming play that has drawn comparisons with the prolific Eagle Ford of Texas. Like the Eagle Ford, the Utica is expected to have a vast prospective area, massive hydrocarbon potential, and three zones containing oil, dry gas, and natural gas liquids.
Though relatively very little is known about the play's true potential, results thus far have been encouraging. Let's take a closer look at the play itself, its potential, and some of the major companies hoping to strike it rich.
A primer on the Utica
The Utica is a shale rock formation located thousands of feet below the Marcellus. Because the play is still in the infant stages of development, its geology and production potential are less well understood than the Marcellus. Located in the Appalachian Basin, the Utica spans several states but is located primarily in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Like the Marcellus, the Utica is composed of sedimentary rocks that contain potentially massive quantities of oil and gas. But unlike the Marcellus, the Utica is believed to contain a greater proportion of "wet" natural gas, which includes natural gas liquids such as butane, ethane, pentane, and propane.
The play is also much deeper than the Marcellus, with much of the sought-after wet gas located at depths of 6,000 feet or less in the outer fringes of the formation.
The Utica's hydrocarbon and economic potential
According to the first assessment from the U.S. Geological Survey, the results from which were announced last year, the Utica shale contains 38 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas. That's a little less than half the recoverable resource potential of the Marcellus, which USGS estimates to hold around 84 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.
Development of unconventional oil and gas resources has already been hailed as a major source of job creation over the next several decades. As the Utica's potentially massive hydrocarbon reserves are gradually exploited, the play is expected to yield significant economic benefits for Ohio and for the country as a whole.
According to a report by IHS, a leading global energy research and consulting firm, development in the Utica will catapult Ohio to the third spot in the list of the top states by energy-sector employment by 2035. The report forecasts that Ohio's unconventional oil and gas employment will surge to 144,000 by the close of this decade and come close to 275,000 by 2035.
If the Utica does turn out to live up to its expectations, it should provide a major boost to Ohio's economy and help reverse decades of manufacturing-sector decline there.
Major Utica operators
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) is by far the leading driller in Ohio's Utica shale, with its core acreage concentrated in Carroll and surrounding counties. Steve Dixon, Chesapeake's CEO, recently expressed the company's optimism regarding the play's future potential, saying the Utica will be "solid" for many years to come.
Chesapeake forecasts estimated ultimate recovery of 5 billion to 10 billion cubic feet of oil and gas equivalents from wells in eastern Ohio. That's notably higher than many operators' well results in the Marcellus. However, Chesapeake recently announced that it no longer views the Utica as central to meeting its oil production target and will instead focus mainly on the play's wet-gas window.
While Chesapeake remains the largest driller in the Utica, other companies, such as Magnum Hunter Resources (NYSE: MHR ) and Gulfport Energy (NASDAQ: GPOR ) , have also amassed significant positions in the play.
In February, Magnum Hunter closed on the acquisition of about 15,500 gross leasehold acres located primarily in Noble County, Ohio, bringing its total position in the Utica to a little over 61,000 net acres. Though the company has yet to drill any wells on its acreage, Gary C. Evans, Magnum Hunter's CEO, expressed his enthusiasm about the company's position in the play, saying, "The Utica Shale of Ohio will be a major focal point for our company this year as we prepare to drill our first well in this exciting new resource play."
And Gulfport, which commands a position of about 128,000 net acres, has reported solid performance in the play. In fact, Gulfport's test well results have been among the most impressive of all Utica operators. Last year, it reported that its Shugert 1-12H well, located in eastern Ohio's Belmont County, averaged a daily sustained 18-hour rate of 28.5 million cubic feet of natural gas, 2,907 barrels of natural gas liquids, and 300 barrels of condensate.
Even the integrated oil majors have secured substantial positions in the Utica. Hess (NYSE: HES ) , which spent some $750 million back in 2011 to boost its position to 185,000 acres, is looking to ramp up its Utica operations this year, with plans to spend $100 million more on the play than it did last year. And BP (NYSE: BP ) , which leased around 84,000 acres in Trumbull County, Ohio, last year, plans to drill its first experimental well next month.
Finally, other notable operators in the play include Anadarko Petroleum, Antero Resources, Chevron, CONSOL Energy, EnerVest, and Royal Dutch Shell. For investors interested in any of these companies, be sure to check out a new comprehensive report from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, scheduled for release next month. The report, which will be available on the DNR website, will include production data for wells drilled last year in the Ohio Utica, as well as the location of those wells and the names of their operators.
Chesapeake scaled back its expectations about the Utica's oil potential, but it still has several core holdings to help it transition away from natural gas production and toward oil. Will the company manage to meet its oil production target and boost cash flow? Or will it languish under the weight of a heavy debt load? To answer that question and to learn more about Chesapeake and its enormous potential, you're invited to check out The Motley Fool's brand-new premium report on the company. Simply click here now to access your copy, and as an added bonus, you'll receive a full year of key updates and expert guidance as news continues to develop.