A relatively short trip from the Haynesville Shale and about as old as the Eagle Ford, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale (TMS) -- which stretches from Texas through Louisiana and into Mississippi -- could right now be considered the "penny stock" of the shale plays. Those who get in early will get in cheaply, but they'll have to stomach some risk as the play is not yet a sure thing like its more mature peers.
"There's been a lot of companies looking at the shale. It's kind of had several phases over the years," Kirk Barrell, president of Woodlands, TX-based Amelia Resources, told NGI's Shale Daily.
Indeed, the TMS goes way back, but like most of the big shale names of today, it was considered "a nuisance" not all that long ago, Barrell said.
The TMS covers 2.7 million acres in Pike, Amite, Concordia, and Wilkinson counties in Mississippi; and East Feliciana, West Feliciana, East Baton Rouge, Washington, Livingston, Tangipahoa, Avoyelles and St. Helena parishes in Louisiana. "The play is located updip to 3.5 Tcfe from the deep Tuscaloosa Trend. Historically, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale has been known as one of the source rocks for the Tuscaloosa sands," according to Amelia's history of the play.
The first well that targeted the TMS was drilled in 1962 in Amite County; it was a dry hole, but oil was found in fractures, according to Amelia.
Additional wells were drilled in 1971 and 1978; the first was a dry hole and the second established production. Two wells drilled during the 1980s experienced blowouts. Then the play went dormant until the late 1990s when a study was published by what was then called the Basin Research Institute of Louisiana State University (now the Basin Research Energy Section of the Louisiana Geological Survey) that said the play could hold up to 7 billion bbl of oil.
The first horizontal well drilled in the TMS was a recompletion of a well drilled in 1998. The play essentially went dormant after another well, which went to oil production, was drilled in 2000. In the middle part of the last decade the play attracted attention again. And several wells were drilled in the ensuing years, according to the Amelia history.
What's driving interest in the play today, according to Barrell, are high oil prices, low natural gas prices and the success experienced in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas, particularly in that play's oil window.
"Overall shale play success is driving interest, too. I think all the other plays are getting crowded, so people are kind of coming now to tier 2, looking at what are the ones we overlooked or what are the ones that are more difficult or more unproven, and Tuscaloosa, I think, to date falls in that category," he said.
"The Eagle Ford being a similar age has obviously sparked the interest. 'Hey, let's come over to Louisiana and see if the rock's the same.' The Eagle Ford's younger than the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale but very similar age." As far as the rock properties, "we're still trying to get our hands around the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale," Barrell said.
"I think a lot of the Eagle Ford knowledge is going to be applied to this area. We're a little deeper. I think as far as looking at the oil window versus condensate and gas and then dry gas, I would guess [producers] may be focusing more mid-dip initially."
Barrell was at the recent North American Prospect Expo in Houston hawking acreage in the play. "Our sales pitch is high-risk, low cost, so if you look at the curve, Haynesville [has] very high cost, low risk now in its current state. Today we'd say the TMS is outrageously affordable and it still has risk.
"We compared the Eagle Ford transactions, and one of the transactions we saw in the last few months was basically $4,500 an acre for 6,800 acres. Well for that price you could go get 120,000 acres in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale. It's a balance of risk and cost, really."
Barrell noted that the venerable Austin Chalk play is active in the southern part of the TMS, so there a driller has the ability to have Austin Chalk potential as well. "That whole Chalk fairway is coming east, which will overlap a fair amount of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale in the deeper portion of it. That kind of gives you a nice mix of deeper shale that may be more gas-prone with condensate, and then you have the Chalk right above you as a mostly oil."
Barrell said he expects current leaseholders in the TMS to begin putting drillbit to dirt pretty soon. "One thing we know for sure is that some companies have acquired existing leases that have short clocks on them, so we think that's going to drive some drilling here mid-year based on lease clocks showing shortened time periods to get drilling done."
If the TMS takes off, producers will most likely be pulling resources in from the Haynesville Shale. Barrell noted that a number of rigs have moved from the North Louisiana play to the Eagle Ford, "so I would bet a lot of service companies would love to head southeast versus very, very southwest."
If the TMS is developed extensively, producers will be able to rely in large part on gas-handling infrastructure that is already on the ground in the region from when the deeper Tuscaloosa trend was tapped. "It's an area that's had activity over three, four decades," Barrell said.
"I think it's just been a very successful play traditionally, so updip of that it makes sense that this shale will work and the engineering will be figured out and there will be a lot of oil and gas produced from it."