SALEM - Are oil and gas drillers bailing out on Ohio shale?
Market experts and investment analysts think that might be the case while others are saying, "not so fast."
In Columbiana County the pace of drilling Utica shale permit issues has slowed, while statewide the number just passed the 600 mark with a little under 300 drilled and 89 in production.
Well permits in Columbiana County are idling along with six issued so far in 2013 after 52 were issued in 2012 and nine in 2011.
This area, including Carroll County, has been cited by Chesapeake Exploration as holding a rich abundance of underground oil and gas products.
That comes via repeated assessment right from the corporate penthouse.
And that's one reason why heavy divestment of Chesapeake holdings everywhere surrounding Carroll and Columbiana counties recently looks like the company is bailing, especially after it putting 94,200 acres up for sale.
But that's a small percentage compared to Chesapeake's gargantuan 1.2 million acres under lease in Ohio and the company has diligently been whittling down a substantial debt.
With drilling equipment spread out, companies say they need gathering pipe in the ground so plants like the M3 Momentum facility in Kensington can begin processing products.
But The Motley Fool's website points out that, "For many drillers, the Utica Shale isn't living up to the original sky-high expectations, especially for oil content."
Bloomberg Business Week headlined an April 15 story saying: "Ohio's $500 Billion Oil Dream Fades as Utica Turns Gassy" and pointing out that initial production results fail to match up with early predictions.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated there was up to 5.5 billion barrels of oil reserves, something The MotLey Fool now says "might have been a bit too optimistic."
But, wait, it followed that up with, "That doesn't mean that the Utica isn't going to turn out to be a very profitable play for some companies.
"In fact, for the right operator that has the right location, the Utica looks like it will turn out to be a very important driver of both profit and production growth for years to come."
So, while expectations may be scaled back, it's a matter of recalibrating a tape-measure home run to one that just clears the fence.
It's still a home run.
And Gulfport, Rex, Magnum Hunter, Hilcorp Energy, Chesapeake and even BP are all here.
In early February, Gunter Land Services sent a letter to Fairfield Township on behalf of BP expressing interest in the mineral rights to the township's 16.37 acres at 3062 Fairfield School Road.
Trustee Chairman Bob Hum noted about three weeks ago that Gunter, which had a Lisbon office, had moved out and the township has not heard from them since.
Township officials, not just in Fairfield, shrug and shake their heads when they hear stories like that.
Contacted by the Salem News, Gunter referred media inquiries directly to BP and calls to BP's North Jackson office have not been returned.
Adding to the head scratching mix, the Seeking Alpha website pointed to recent Baker Hughes data said that "... given the significant backlog of wells and capacity constraints in the Marcellus, the rig count reduction in the area is hardly a reflection of a slow-down in growth.
"More likely, it is driven by the lumpy takeaway capacity expansion calendar and well inventory management."
Seeking Alpha noted while adding that despite large fluctuations in active rigs in the latest three-weeks it would be incorrect to read any negative gas drilling activity trend from the survey.
But, "On the other hand, there are no signs of an acceleration in gas-directed drilling either, which is a bit of a surprise in its own right," it said.
In Chesapeake Energy's third quarter earnings call, former president and CEO Aubrey McClendon called Columbiana, Carroll and Harrison counties "the core of the core."
He explained, "And so, we went after the wet gas here ... so, I think in the wet gas the best of the Utica wet gas is absolutely competitive with the best of the Eagle Ford wet gas.
"And so, the question is really is has the area of wet gas narrowed somewhat? Probably it has a little bit. But so did the Eagle Ford wet gas window and we've dealt with that.
"And we have acreage in the right spot for the Eagle Ford wet gas; and then Utica, I think, our Utica wet gas acreage is between 300,000 and 400,000 acres out of our million-plus acres there."
"So, I think if you look around and look at the wells that Gulfport's announced and some of the other wells that other companies have announced that if you're in that corridor which stretches from Columbiana down through Carroll and Harrison, and maybe a little further south from there, you have results that are as good as any from any play in the country."
But that was early last November - 17 permits ago as far as Columbiana County goes.
Larry Shields can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org