It’s wait and see for future of the Utica


Experts analyzing unconventional methods of extracting the earth’s natural gas and oil – like the horizontal wells being drilled in Eastern Ohio’s Utica Shale Play – have hoped other successful U.S. shale plays would provide clues to Ohio’s future.

At least three notable shale plays bear some similarity to Ohio’s Utica Shale Play, but early Utica results released recently may now indicate the formations just aren’t comparable at all.

Statistics released May 16 by Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources showed just 87 active Utica wells had data to report for 2012. The productivity amounted to 12.84 million MCF of natural gas and 635,896 barrels of oil, numbers far below early expectations and significantly less than early production in shale plays of Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota.

Despite that, industry experts aren’t getting worked up yet.

“It’s going to be different, there are no identical plays,” said Mike Chadsey, campaign manager for Energy in Depth, which serves as a research, education and public outreach campaign for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The only things Ohio’s Utica and Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale might have in common are size and geography.

With just 26 Eagle Ford Shale drilling permits issued in 2008, statistics show the young Texas formation already was churning out 352 barrels of crude each day, compared to average Utica production of about 79 barrels per day. In 2008, statistics maintained by that state’s oil and gas regulatory authority, the Railroad Commission of Texas, indicate those 26 Eagle Ford wells were producing 2 million MCF of natural gas.

While many experts have compared Ohio’s natural gas output to that of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, early Marcellus production numbers weren’t immediately available because at that time, Pennsylvania’s regulatory authority combined Marcellus statistics with all other more conventional gas and oil drilling results. The first Marcellus well was drilled in 2004, but most production started in earnest in 2007, according to Kevin Sunday, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Reporting guidelines changed in 2009.

In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale Play, extremely high oil output and very low natural gas production is the opposite of Ohio’s high natural gas output and, so far, low oil production. While geologists have known for decades of the Bakken’s potential, access to the vast reserves was not achieved until 2006 with new technology. Statistics maintained by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources show in 2006 the Bakken cranked out 2.31 million barrels of crude, compared to Ohio’s 634,896 barrels last year.

Similarities may come, though, in the lack of pipeline infrastructure in both Ohio and North Dakota.

When asked how long it took for the state to build the pipelines and infrastructure necessary to transport the product to market, North Dakota public information officer Alison Ritter last week said they aren’t there yet.

“We are still dealing with it,” Ritter said. “We can truck oil, but you can’t truck natural gas.”

The oil also is often moved by rail, she said.

While that state is considered a top oil-producing state, the natural gas the comes with it often is wasted, or flared, simply because there is not enough pipeline space to move it. She said the state is working to build more pipelines, but the process is slow because of the short North Dakota construction season.

“We still produce a lot of natural gas, and as these wells age, they will start to produce more natural gas than oil,” Ritter said. “The majority of gas is moved by pipeline. But right now gas is being flared because of line issues.”

While Ohio’s lack of pipelines is not causing natural gas to be wasted, it is holding up production.

Energy In Depth’s Chadsey said production already at a slow ramp-up is being further delayed by the lack of infrastructure.

“A lot of the wells are in that 50-day, 100-day range (production per year), and even at that, a lot are being choked off,” he said, referring to the process of slowing or stopping the gas flow.

Overall though, Chadsey and other experts last week expressed little concern over the early Utica production numbers.

“I don’t think the results are disappointing,” said Robert W. Chase, Ph.D., chairman of Marietta College’s Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology. Ohio’s Marietta College has been ranked among the top 10 petroleum engineering colleges worldwide.

“There aren’t too many wells on line yet, and many of those that are have production being limited by existing pipeline and treatment capacity,” he said.

The 87 wells were in production collectively for just 7,979 days – an average of less than 92 days per well.

Thomas E. Stewart, executive vice president for petroleum lobby group Ohio Oil and Gas Association echoed the sentiment.

“I personally am not discouraged,” Stewart said. “I think the production numbers for 2012 show the sweet spot is a natural gas play with some associated crude condensate production,” Stewart said. Still he believes there is crude along the western edge of the play, but because it is such a “tight” formation, new methods of extraction must first be discovered before the oil can be retrieved.

“The Utica Shale is an extremely tight, old shale rock. You induce fractures, and you get a small molecule-like natural gas to flow, but it’s like trying to blow thick oil through a very thin straw. We have to find ways to improve fracturing specific to the Utica,” Stewart said. “It’s all research and development.”

Overall, Marietta Colleges’ Chase expressed optimism.

“Gas production data looks very good,” he said. “Leasing continues at a very good pace, and companies are really just in the exploration and delineation phase of shale development.”

And while the so-called “sweet spot” for the Utica was believed to be in the area of Ohio’s Carroll County, the success of areas like Mahoning and Trumbull counties still remains to be seen, both Stewart and Chadsey pointed out.

While Chase, Chadsey and Stewart disagreed about the reliability of seismic testing and other methods of advance planning, they all agreed that onlookers are anxious for results of Mahoning Valley drilling.

“There are some larger companies that haven’t had any production reports yet. Wet gas is going to be very attractive, but what we don’t know is where is the oil window,” Chadsey said. “We don’t have a lot of data points north of Columbiana County. We are waiting to see. Halcon, BP potentially could have some great results. They certainly saw something that they liked.”