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Consol Focused on Building Utica Core in Coming Years

Consol Energy Inc. outlined plans this week to fold more Utica Shale into its core position through a development program to increase stacked pay opportunities and build on its current 22-year drilling inventory.

The 2017 program, management said, is expected to set the company up for 17% year/year production growth in 2018. 

"Continued delineation of the Utica will move noncore acreage to core, expanding our inventory, increasing our stacked pay possibilities, as well as increasing our acreage monetization opportunities," said COO Tim Dugan during the company's analyst day in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. "Over the next three years, we expect to convert 250,000 acres from noncore to core, through both operated and non-operated delineation opportunities as well as data trades."

As the company has turned away from coal and transformed itself into a pure-play natural gas producer in recent years, its focus on the Utica has been increasing in Ohio and Pennsylvania. At the end of the third quarter, Consol's dry Utica assets in Monroe County, OH, were its highest rate of return project, according to management. While the Marcellus Shale continues to account for the bulk of the production, Consol has 608,000 net acres prospective for the Utica, ahead of the 406,000 net acres in the Marcellus and the 235,000 net acres it the Upper Devonian shales.

"The true value of stacked plays is still not widely recognized," Dugan said of the company's plans to take advantage of the multiple horizons in its portfolio to more efficiently drive growth for the company. "Stacked pay development allows us to realize value quicker, with lower capital, less risk and it improves our rates of return by 10-20%. As we continue to delineate the dry Utica, our stacked pay opportunities will grow."

Consol and Noble Energy Inc. ended their five-year Marcellus joint venturein October, dividing 669,000 acres in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that Dugan said "provides us with the operational flexibility and control to take advantage" of the Utica and its stacked pay potential.

CEO Nicholas Deluliis said the company is targeting a complete split of the exploration and production segment from the coal segment next year, which would also help the company grow in the coming years. Consol has only one nonoperated coal complex and related assets remaining in its portfolio. A large part of the 2017 strategy -- as it was this year -- is the balance sheet. The company plans to focus on generating free cash flow, strengthening its balance sheet and executing $400-600 million of asset sales.

Management said those sales could include both core and noncore assets from the exploration and production (E&P) segment and assets from the diversified business unit, which includes everything outside of E&P, including coal and water assets.

Consol is guiding for a $555 million E&P budget next year and 415 Bcfe of production, versus this year's budget of $205 million and forecasted production of 395 Bcfe. 

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