Just two short years ago Chesapeake Energy's (NYSE:CHK) former CEO, Aubrey McClendon, said that Ohio's Utica Shale could be the "biggest thing economically to hit Ohio, since maybe the plow" and that it could be worth "half a trillion" dollars. He also went on to say that the play "is likely most analogous, but economically superior to the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas." Today, however, McClendon is out of a job and some companies, including Chesapeake, are pulling back on the once-promising Utica.
McClendon thought the Utica would be every bit as oily as the Eagle Ford, but that hasn't proven to be the case. Yet, some companies are finding the play to be everything McClendon said it would be, but just for different reasons. What companies are finding is that the play has a whole lot of very valuable natural gas and liquids. In fact, Magnum Hunter Resources (NASDAQOTH:MHRCQ) is an example of one company that recently sold its acreage in the Eagle Ford so that it could turn its focus to the Utica.
On Magnum Hunter's recent quarterly conference call CEO Gary Evans had this to say about the company's decision to exit the Eagle Ford in favor of the Utica:
... [We've] taken that money, and we've paid down our debt. But we've also made a strategic decision to significantly enhance our existing position in the Utica ... And we've strategically been accumulating acreage in these plays for the past 3 years ... And we have derived a comfort level of the acreage that we already owned, and we have felt and our board has felt that we needed to increase that position ... So what we see with respect to this region of the Utica is extremely exciting to us.
He went on to say that the estimated ultimate recovery of each well in the Utica on a barrel of oil equivalent basis could be double (or greater) than what it was seeing in the Eagle Ford. What that means, despite the fact that the play contains a lot of natural gas, is that when looking at the overall returns, the Utica "competes very favorably with any oil well in the United States."
This is why the play is attracting a lot of capital from companies like Gulfport Energy (NASDAQ:GPOR) and Rex Energy (NASDAQ:REXX). Gulfport has been especially aggressive in its targeting of the play; the company is spending more than 85% of its 2013 capital budget on it. That Utica-focused capital is what has fueled the company's 23% year-over-year growth in production. Further, like Magnum Hunter, it has continued to accumulate acreage in the play over the past year because it really likes what it's seeing there.
Rex Energy has also enjoyed excellent results in its Utica wells. Three of the company's wells in its southern prospect produced a 30-day average sales rate of 1,588 barrels of oil equivalent per day. Made up of 55% liquids, these wells are very liquids-rich, which leads to solid economics. Rex has also been adding to its position in the Utica as it builds around its core acreage position.
For producers not looking for big oil gains, the Utica continues to delight. It really goes to show that one man's trash can really become another's treasure. In Magnum Hunter's case, it cashed in on the treasure of the Eagle Ford and is looking to pick up the pieces of the Utica that others have left behind. If its results turn out to be as good as what its peers are seeing, that move could really pay off.