The Curious Case of the Shrinking Utica Shale Play
Oil, Gas, and Brine Oh My!
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
It was just three years ago that the Ohio Geological Survey (OGS) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) were proposing – and expanding – their bullish stance on the potential Utica Shale oil and gas production “play.” Back in April 2012 both agencies continue[d] to redraw their best guess, although as the Ohio Geological Survey’s Chief Larry Wickstrom cautioned, “It doesn’t mean anywhere you go in the core area that you will have a really successful well.”
What we found is that the OGS projections have not held up to their substantial claims. And here is why…
The Geological Survey eventually parsed the Utica play into pieces:
- a large oil component encompassing much of the central part of the state,
- natural gas liquids from Ashtabula on the Pennsylvania border southwest to Muskingum, Guernsey, and Noble Counties, and
- natural gas counties, primarily, along the Ohio River from Columbiana on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border to Washington County in the Southeast quarter of the state.
Fast forward to the first quarter of 2015 and we have a very healthy dataset to begin to model and validate/refute these projections. Back in 2009 Wickstrom & Co. only had 53 Utica Shale laterals, while today Ohio is host to 962 laterals from which to draw our conclusions. The preponderance of producing wells are operated by Chesapeake (463), Gulfport (118), Antero Resources (62), Eclipse Resources (41), American Energy Utica (36), Consol (35), and R.E. Gas Development (34), with an additional 13 LLCs and 10 publicly traded companies accounting for the remaining 173 producing laterals. A further difference between the following analysis and the OGS one is that we looked at total production and how much oil and gas was produced on a per-day basis.
Using an interpolative geostatistical technique known as Empirical Bayesian Kriging and the 962 lateral dataset, we modeled total and per day oil, gas, and brine production for Ohio’s Utica Shale between 2011 and Q1-2015 to determine if the aforementioned map redrawing holds up, is out-of-date, and/or is overly optimistic as is generally the case with initial O&G “moving target” projections.
Days of Activity & Brine Production
The most active regions of the Utica Shale for well pad activity has been much of Muskingum County and its border with Guernsey and Noble counties; laterals are in production every 1 in 2.1-3.4 days. Conversely, the least active wells have been drilled along the Harrison-Belmont border and the intersection between Harrison, Tuscarawas, and Guernsey counties.
Brine is a form of liquid drilling waste characterized by high salt loads and total dissolved solids. The laterals that have produced the most brine to date are located in a large section of Monroe County and at the intersection of Belmont, Monroe, and Noble counties, with total brine production amounting to 23,292 barrels or 734,000-978,000 gallons (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Total Ohio Utica Shale Oil, Gas, and Brine Production 2011 to Q1-2015
This area is also one of the top three regions of the state with respect to Class II Injection volumes; the other two high-brine production regions are Morrow and Portage counties to the west and southwest, respectively (Fig. 2).
However, on a per-day basis we are seeing quite a few inefficient laterals across the state, including Devon Energy’s Eichelberger and Richman Farms laterals in Ashland and Medina counties. Ashland and Medina are producing 230-270 barrels (8,453-9,923 gallons) of brine per day. In Carroll County, one of Chesapeake’s Trushell laterals tops the list for brine production at 1,843 barrels (67,730 gallons) per day. One of Gulfport’s Bolton laterals in Belmont County and EdgeMarc’s Merlin 10PPH in Washington County are generating 1,100-1,200 barrels (40,425-44,100 gallons) of brine per day.
Oil & Gas Production
Since the last time we modeled production the oil hotspots have shrunk. They have also become more discrete and migrated southward – all of this in contrast to the model proposed by the OGS in 2012. The areas of greatest productivity (i.e., >26,000 barrels of oil) are not the central part of the state, but rather Tuscarawas, Harrison, Guernsey, and Noble counties (Fig. 1). The intersection of Harrison, Tuscarawas, and Guernsey counties is where oil productivity per-day is highest – in the range of 300-630+ barrels (Fig. 3). The areas that the OGS proposed had the highest oil potential have produced <600 barrels total or <12 barrels per day.
Figure 3. Per-Day Ohio Utica Shale Oil, Gas, and Brine Production 2011 to Q1-2015
The OGS natural gas region has proven to be another area of extremely low oil productivity.
Natural gas productivity in the Utica Shale is far less extensive than the OGS projected back in 2012. High gas production is restricted to discreet areas of Belmont and Monroe counties to the tune of 947,000-4.1 million Mcf to date – or 5,300-18,100 Mcf per day. While the OGS projected natural gas and natural gas liquid potential all the way from Medina to Fairfield and Perry counties, we found a precipitous drop-off in productivity in these counties to <1,028 Mcf per day (<155,000 Mcf total from 2011 to Q1-2015) or a mere 6-11% of the Belmont-Monroe sweet spot.
Conclusion: A Shrinking Utica Shale Play
Simply put, the OGS 2012 estimates:
- Have not held up,
- Are behind the times and unreliable with respect to citizens looking to guestimate potential royalties,
- Were far too simplistic,
- Mapped high-yield sections of the “play” as continuous when in fact productive zones are small and discrete,
- Did not differentiate between per day and total productivity, and
- Did not address brine waste.
These issues should be addressed by the OGS and ODNR on a more transparent and frequent basis. Combine this analysis with the disappointing returns Ohio’s 17 publicly traded drilling firms are delivering and one might conclude that the structural Utica Shale bubble is about to burst. However, we know that when all else fails these same firms can just “lever up,” like their Rocky Mountain brethren, to maintain or marginally increase production and shareholder happiness. Will these Red Queens of the O&G industry stay ahead of the Big Bank and Private Equity hounds on their trail?
The areal extent of the Utica in Ohio has collapsed over early predictions, but nonetheless total production is very impressive. In a couple years, it has expanded to Fayetteville sized gas play.
Also, even though the area in Ohio has shrunk (because pressure gets too low in the West, where Utica is shallow), the productive area in PA and WV has had some real expansion of the dry gas sweet spots, with several huge wells at very high pressures.
In addition, the Utica is selling into very low prices right now, because the takeaway pipelines are lacking. Even lower than the already relatively low Henry Hub (Gulf) price.
i appreciate the work of frack tracker. This is important information that would otherwise not be available to the public. The way the frackers were welcomed into Ohio with citizens’s rights removed to have a say in zoning this highly dirty industrial activity, with the state counting heavily on many jobs and prosperity from this activity without a thorough independent study of its feasibility and the community impact is not an example of good governance.
Thank you for this data and analysis on the shrinking Utica Shale. One has to wonder if original projections are based on unreliable algorithms or are the optimistic projections the result of public relations/investor driven concerns. With continuing news of diminishing accessible supplies, and with climate change on our tail, one also has to wonder if investing billions in continued fossil exploration and development is our best pathway forward.