Is the Utica Just Full of Hot Air?

Unlike the quarterly production updates given by most energy producing states, Ohio only releases its statewide production numbers once a year. Investors finally received those much-anticipated production numbers from the state's Utica Shale last  week. Unfortunately, the overall results were rather disappointing -- from all appearances the Utica appears to be filled with natural gas instead of oil.

While the numbers being reported by producers have been hinting that this would be the case, the report by the state's Department of Natural Resources really confirms this to be true. The good news is that it would appear that there is significant natural gas in the Utica; however, unless the price for gas rises significantly this won't turn into the $500 billion economic powerhouse that producers like Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) originally envisioned.

The state's report included data from the 87 wells drilled last year and showed average oil output of 1,742 barrels per day against 35 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. With numbers like that, a play that was once viewed as the next Eagle Ford Shale because of its three distinct windows isn't likely going to live up to the hype. That still doesn't mean that the play is a dud.

In fact, the industry expects it will have drilled 360 wells by the end of this year while bringing 1,000 wells on line by the end of 2015. That's quite heady growth for a play that just started development in 2011. What we are likely to see is a shift in which companies are bringing all those wells on line.

Chesapeake, which was the top producer last year with 10 Bcf of gas is already looking to scale back its operations; it has 100,000 acres up for sale. Meanwhile, Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN  ) which didn't produce anything from its five wells last year, is already packing up and moving on. The company has put its entire acreage position up for sale.

Other top producers in the play last year include Hess (NYSE: HES  ) and Gulfport Energy (NASDAQ: GPOR  )  which produced 923 million and 767 million cubic feet of gas, respectively. What's interesting here is that Gulfport, which is very much a liquids-focused company, is still betting big on the Utica. This year the company is planning to spend $499 million of its total $580 million capital budget in the Utica.

Gulfport is certainly seeing some of the best producing wells in the play. Its first 14 wells averaged an initial rate of production of 807 barrels of condensate, 7.8 million cubic feet of natural gas and 946 barrels of natural gas liquids per day. While many of its peers have been shedding acreage in the Utica, Gulfport increased its acreage in the play by about 20% by spending $220 million to add 22,000 acres to its position.

So, while it would appear that there is much more gas than oil in the Utica, that doesn't mean the play is a complete disappointment. Sure, this doesn't suit the liquids-growth strategies of both Devon and Chesapeake, but the high-value liquids it does have represent a solid opportunity for Gulfport. The company and several smaller peers, including Magnum Hunter Resources (NYSE: MHR  )  which just started drilling its first well this year, believe that ample profit can be made by drilling the liquids sweet spot in the play. While that means that the Utica might not be the best thing to hit Ohio since the plow, for the right producers it still looks like it will be a very profitable play.

Finally, even though Chesapeake is scaling back its Utica operations, it is not pulling out like Devon. It has a large position in the play, which remains important for its plans for liquids growth. 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.


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