Former Chesapeake Energy (OTC:CHKA.Q) CEO Aubrey McClendon once called the Utica Shale the "best thing to hit Ohio since the plow." Some laughed at that remark a few years back, especially after early returns didn't show that the play held much producible oil. Bold statements like that, combined with poor returns, forced McClendon into an early retirement from Chesapeake. However, after looking through the oil and gas producer's most recent results, McClendon is probably the one who's laughing.
Last quarter, Chesapeake's production in the Utica shot up by 91% compared to the prior quarter. The company produced 164 million cubic feet of natural gas equivalent per day after it connected 63 wells to pipelines. There's even more growth on the way. After drilling 377 wells in the play, Chesapeake Energy still has 208 wells still in various stages of completion.
New CEO Doug Lawler noted that while Texas' Eagle Ford shale would fuel Chesapeake's oil production growth next year, the Utica and Marcellus shales would do the heavy lifting to fuel production growth for both natural gas and natural gas liquids. The big reason why the Utica is starting to deliver results is because infrastructure is finally starting to come online to unlock the play's potential.
One key piece of infrastructure that helped drive the past quarter's results is the Kensington processing plant. Chesapeake was finally able to process its gas at the facility after the first phase came online this past July. The Kensington site, which is part of a joint venture involving Access Midstream Partners (NYSE: ACMP), EV Energy Partners (NASDAQ: EVEP), and M3, also has a second phase due to start up before the end of the year. In addition to that plant, Access and EV Energy Partners are laying critical gathering pipelines that will get Chesapeake's gas to the processing plant.
Another major project that will help fuel Chesapeake's future results in the Utica is the ATEX Express Pipeline being constructed by Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE:EPD). That project should come online early next year and will send ethane to the Gulf Coast. It's the first of several pipelines that will take natural gas liquids to the region. As an anchor shipper on the project, Chesapeake Energy will really benefit from its completion.
Together, these projects will enable Chesapeake to get its wells producing sales volumes at a quicker rate which will deliver faster returns for the company. The ATEX pipeline is especially key to the whole region as it will unlock the price of ethane by providing shippers like Chesapeake with an inexpensive shipping option to move the material to the Gulf Coast petrochemical hub.
While the Utica delivered for Chesapeake this past quarter, 2014 looks to be the year that it shows what it's really worth. It represents just the latest example of America's energy boom and its potential to drive returns for investors.
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