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Ohio shale permits jump in November as private drillers replace public E&Ps

Ohio's oil and gas producers pulled 7% fewer permits for new shale wells in November than in October, but November's 26 new permits represented a 44% increase over the year-ago month, according to the latest data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Two private equity-backed drillers — Ascent Resources and Encino Energy LLC — accounted for the bulk of the new permits, with a combined 81% of the permits, according to the state's database as of Dec. 5.

Encino and Ascent are both led by executive teams with years of shale experience at Marcellus Shale pioneer Range Resources Corp. and the Utica's first driller, Chesapeake Energy Corp. Chesapeake sold its entire Utica position to Canada Pension Plan Investment Board-backed Encino for $2 billion in July 2018. Ascent's last major leasehold purchase was a nearly $1 billion set of deals, also in the summer of 2018, with CNX Resources Corp. and Hess Corp.

Under pressure from investors and lenders to trim costs, publicly traded shale gas producers have been retreating from the Utica for most of the year. Utica Shale wells tend to be more expensive than Marcellus wells further east, because the former formation is deeper and requires a longer vertical shaft before the well bore turns horizontal. The only public driller to pull permits in November was the state's former top producer, Gulfport Energy Corp.

Ascent is now Ohio's top natural gas producer by volume. It has kept its focus on the dry gas counties along the Ohio River in eastern Ohio, while Encino, reflecting its inherited Chesapeake footprint, is drilling in both the dry gas window along the river and further west in the liquids-rich window of the play in Harrison and surrounding counties.

The nation's largest gas producer, EQT Corp., holds significant acreage in the Utica but has slowed its efforts there. The more expensive Utica wells have to compete for EQT's shrinking capital with cheaper Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

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