U.S. drillers that set up rigs amid the rolling farmland of eastern Ohio on projections underground shale held $500 billion of oil are packing up.
Four of the biggest stakeholders in untapped deposits known as the Utica Shale have put up all or part of their acreage for sale, as prices fall by a third in some cases. Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) of Oklahoma City, the biggest U.S. shale lease owner, last week offered up 94,200 acres (38,121 hectares). EnerVest Ltd. and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN) are selling as early results show lower production than their predictions.
The flip-flop underscores the difficulties faced by even experienced drillers around the world in tapping the sedimentary rock. In California, Occidental Petroleum Corp. was stymied by the Monterey Shale’s fault-riddled terrain. In Poland, Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) stopped drilling because shale output was minimal. China’s failures with shale gas drove producers Cnooc Ltd. and China Petrochemical Corp. to seek expertise in North America.
In Ohio’s Utica formation, which runs eastward as far as New York, drillers frequently found the rock too dense and underground pressures insufficient to produce oil.
The rush to buy acreage has reversed.
The Utica saw one deal valued at more than $50 million in the fourth quarter of 2012, compared with seven in North Dakota’s more productive Bakken Shale and six in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, according to the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
By 2017, the Utica should produce a daily average of 200,000 barrels of oil, Wood Mackenzie Ltd. estimated. The Eagle Ford by then will be producing 1.15 million barrels a day, almost six times more.
“People started to realize that, you know what, maybe the oil window of the play is not all it’s cracked up to be,” said Jonathan Garrett, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie who has studied the Utica.
Utica acreage can fetch about $1,000 to $8,000 an acre, Garrett said. In the Eagle Ford, which produced about 374,000 barrels of oil a day in January, acreage can cost about $5,000 to more than $36,000 an acre, he said.
Gulfport Energy Corp. (GPOR) paid $10,000 apiece for 22,000 net acres in Utica in February, compared with $15,000 an acre Total SA spent on a joint venture with Chesapeake in January 2012.
The global exploration and production industry, which Cowen Group Inc. estimates will spend $645 billion this year, is learning how hard it is to transfer practices and expectations from one shale formation to another and replicate the success of the top fields, such as the Eagle Ford.
The Utica grabbed the U.S. shale spotlight in 2011 when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated it held 5.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves -- equivalent to more than twice Yemen’s proven resource and valued at about $488 billion at yesterday’s $88.71-a-barrel U.S. oil price.
Chesapeake had boasted Utica would outperform the Eagle Ford. EnerVest, the biggest gas producer in Ohio, had said the Utica would bring jobs and new industry to the state. EnerVest in the past year has tried to sell acreage there and no buyers have emerged.
EnerVest is selling out of the Utica because oil production doesn’t fit its low-cost business model, Mark Houser, chief executive officer of EV Energy Partners LP, said in an interview. EV Energy is a master-limited partnership controlled by Houston-based EnerVest.
Going for natural gas is another story. Some areas of the Utica were found to be rich in gas liquids, though only a minority of companies are positioned to benefit. They include Gulfport of Oklahoma City and Denver-based PDC Energy Inc. (PDCE)
Chesapeake has decided to leave it to other companies to crack “the code” of the Utica’s oil prospects after the company found it wasn’t worth trying any longer, Senior Vice President Jeff Mobley said in December at an industry financial conference. Since September, Chesapeake has been seeking a partner to share ownership and costs in the Utica.
Devon, also based in Oklahoma City, decided to sell its 157,000 net acres in the Utica so it can concentrate on more profitable plays, said Chip Minty, a spokesman.
PDC, another Utica explorer, dropped its effort to find a partner when it couldn’t get a high enough bid for the stake it was offering, and in September decided to go it alone.
Early drilling results showed the oil portion of the Utica isn’t as porous as some other shale formations and is shallower than its gas-filled areas, meaning it’s harder to get oil to flow through the rock, and there’s less natural pressure to help force it out, said Jerry James, president of Artex Oil Co. in Marietta, Ohio.
Operators are looking for better ways to fracture their oil wells, and discussing whether to use pumps to get crude to the surface, James said.
“Some of the oil window is going to work, it’s just going to take a while,” James said.
The Utica has the potential to be one of PDC’s top performers, based on the company’s recent results, Vice President Scott Reasoner said in an e-mail.
Jim Gipson, a spokesman for Chesapeake, declined to comment. Paul Heerwagen, Gulfport’s investor relations director, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
Much still depends on the construction of processing units and pipelines to provide a route to market for Utica production. The pace of drilling has been hindered by a lack of infrastructure that may require a $30 billion investment over three years to build out, said Jack Lafield, CEO of Dallas-based pipeline operator Caiman Energy LLC.
The number of drilling rigs in the Utica has risen year over year, indicating that producers still see value in the field despite the lack of oil, said Jeff Daniels, a professor at Ohio State University who heads the school’s Subsurface Energy Resource Center. The problem with oil production may be solved with new technology.
“We have a lot to learn about producing from these shales,” Daniels said.
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