2 Natural Gas Liquids Drillers to Watch This Year

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Ohio's Utica shale -- an emerging oil and gas play -- recently reached an important milestone. According to the latest update from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Utica now has 300 producing oil and gas wells.

This year, drilling activity in the Utica is expected to accelerate further as upcoming improvements in gas processing and pipeline infrastructure entice companies to boost production. While Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) , the play's largest leasehold owner and most active driller, is still top dog in the Utica, two other companies are also seeing tremendous success in the play. Let's take a closer look.

Antero Resources
Antero Resources (NYSE: AR  ) , a Denver-based oil and natural gas exploration and production company with primary assets located in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale and the Utica, is one of them. The company boasts 105,000 net acres in the Utica, and has consistently posted some of the best drilling results in the play.

In its recently released fourth-quarter operating update, Antero reported exceptional results from its five most recently drilled wells in the Utica's super-rich window in Noble County. The wells posted an average 24-hour peak processed rate of 32.2 MMcfe/d, compared to 27.5 MMcfe/d for its previously drilled five wells in the area.

Crucially, the new wells yielded 65% liquids, producing an average of 1,897 barrels per day of natural gas liquids, and 11.2 MMcf/d of dry natural gas. This is encouraging because the company earns significantly higher rates of return from drilling in the liquids-rich portions of the play.

According to a company presentation, Antero's wells in the Utica's "highly rich/condensate" window generate an after-tax rate of return of 220%, as compared to just 40% for wells drilled in the dry gas window. Given that the company has more than 500 potential drilling locations in its liquids-rich acreage, this suggests several years of drilling inventory with truly exceptional returns.

This year, Antero plans to allocate about a quarter of its drilling and completion budget toward the Utica, and expects to complete 41 Utica wells with a four-rig program. Fourth-quarter production is estimated to come in at 675 to 680 MMcfe/d, which would represent 20% sequential growth, and 87% year-over-year growth.

Gulfport Energy
The second company to watch is Gulfport Energy (NASDAQ: GPOR  ) , which ended 2013 with a record Utica production level of 27,780 barrels of oil equivalent per day, up a whopping 340% from the previous year. While Antero is seeing tremendous success in the play's condensate window, Gulfport is eager to ramp up drilling in the play's dry gas corridor.

In the third quarter, the company reported fantastic initial results from its first well in the Utica's dry gas corridor, the Irons 1-4H well, which posted an average 24-hour sales rate of 30.3 MMCF of natural gas per day. Given the well's strong economics, and the fact that roughly 44% of the company's Utica acreage is located in the dry gas window, Gulfport is eager to drill additional dry gas wells this year.

The company plans to allocate approximately 87% of its 2014 capital budget of $675-$725 million toward Utica horizontal drilling activity. It plans to continue operating seven rigs in the play, with four running in the wet gas phase, one in the condensate phase, and two in the dry gas window, and expects to drill approximately 85 to 95 gross Utica wells this year.

As it ramps up its development program, Gulfport should also benefit from improved infrastructure in the region this year, thanks to the expansion of processing capacity at MarkWest Energy Partners' (NYSE: MWE  ) wet gas system, which is expected to grow from 400 million cubic feet per day to 1 billion cubic feet per day by mid-2014.

The bottom line
Though the Utica hasn't exactly lived up to its initial hype, recent results from Antero and Gulfport are highly encouraging. Given the upcoming improvements in the play's gas processing and pipeline takeaway capacity, these companies should continue to deliver double-digit production growth. Investors should keep an eye on the results of both companies' various downspacing pilot programs, which could further reduce costs and improve returns.

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Arjun Sreekumar

Arjun is a value-oriented investor focusing primarily on the oil and gas sector, with an emphasis on E&Ps and integrated majors. He also occasionally writes about the US housing market and China’s economy.

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