Don't Count out the Utica Shale Just yet

On May 16, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources finally published 2012 production data for the Utica Shale – a rock formation located thousands of feet below the Marcellus that spans Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, though most activity to date has been concentrated in Ohio.

The long-awaited report shows that the play's 87 producing wells amounted to an output of roughly 1750 barrels of oil per day and about 35 million cubic feet of gas per day. While that's nothing to scoff at, the data was disappointing for investors hoping that the Utica would be the next big oil play, potentially even rivaling the prolific Eagle Ford play of Texas.

However, despite the less than stellar data released by Ohio officials, there is still reason to be optimistic about production growth in the Utica this year. Let's take a closer look.

Infrastructure constraints
The main reason the Ohio Utica's production results weren't as good as they could have been is that many Utica operators held back on bringing new wells on line last year, due largely to the lack of gathering, processing and fractionation capacity.

Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) , which was the play's most active driller last year and is currently operating 14 rigs there, cited the lack of processing infrastructure as the biggest reason for production growth remaining below its potential. "Processing is really the holdup," said Chief Operating Officer Steven Dixon in the company's first-quarter operational and financial update.

Good news ahead
However, infrastructure constraints are expected to ease substantially, which should provide a healthy runway for Utica producers to accelerate drilling. Indeed, Chesapeake expects to more than quadruple its average first-quarter natural gas volume this year, as new pipelines and processing plants are brought on line.  

Analysts expect some $2 billion worth of new projects to be revealed, in addition to the $2 billion of projects that have already been announced. Major projects that have either been proposed or are under way include a natural gas liquids processing plant by affiliates of NiSource and Hilcorp Energy; a gathering and processing plant by M3 Midstream LLC, Access Midstream Partners, and EV Energy Partners (NASDAQ: EVEP  ) ; and a proposed pipeline from Ohio to Detroit and Canada, to be built by DTE Energy, Spectra Energy (NYSE: SE  ) and Enbridge.

1 midstream company to watch
But the company that has perhaps invested most aggressively in Utica infrastructure is MarkWest Energy Partners (NYSE: MWE  ) . In just the past year alone, it has completed 60 miles of gathering pipelines, commenced operations at two major gas plants in the region, and hammered out agreements with a handful of major operators, including Gulfport Energy (NASDAQ: GPOR  ) , Antero Resources, PDC Energy, Rex Energy, and – most recently – CNX.

Markwest's Cadiz processing complex, which lies in the heart of the play's rich gas region, is already operating near full capacity. To cater to the high demand, the company plans to install an additional 200 million cubic feet per day processing plant at Cadiz in the second quarter of 2014.

Over the next 12 months, MarkWest plans to complete an additional 200 miles of gathering pipelines, boost processing capacity by 800 million cubic feet per day, and commission a third fractionation complex in the Northeast. This is definitely one midstream company worth keeping a close eye on if you're optimistic about production growth in the Utica.

Another company that stands to benefit big time from growth in the Utica is Chesapeake Energy, the largest leaseholder in the play. While debt-related challenges continue to cast a dark cloud of uncertainty over the company's future, Chesapeake has made major strides in reining in spending and adopting a more disciplined approach. For many investors, the important question is whether Chesapeake's current share price reflects its true value. 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.


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