Even with about 60% of the company’s production and capital spending still tied up in the Barnett Shale, EV Energy Partners LP (EVEP) CEO Mark Houser wasn't shy about calling Ohio's Utica Shale play the "key driver of the EVEP story" last week at the Wells Fargo Energy Symposium in New York.

To hear Houser talk about the play's potential, especially as his company is concerned, that story is about to get a lot better in the years ahead. Formed in 2006 as an upstream master limited partnership by the private equity firm Enervest Ltd., EVEP has come to hold 173,000 net working interest acres in the Utica, with about 50,000 of those in the wet gas window where nearly all the play's wells have been drilled. EVEP has an overriding royalty interest in 880,000 gross acres as well.

The company holds another 79,000 acres in the immature volatile oil window, which Houser said he believes holds vast potential for the company's returns.

Combined with Enervest's portfolio, according to its own estimate, EVEP's 963 Bcfe of proved reserves puts it among the top-30 U.S. onshore producers. The company plans to invest $335-350 million in Utica midstream assets over the next five years and expects to attain "a whole lot of visibility" in the play as time goes on, Houser said.

"Suddenly a lot of the bottlenecks in the Utica are being reduced and things are changing," Houser said. "We estimate that there's about $12 billion in midstream investments going on right now and the things that were reducing production are changing."

EVEP stands to benefit from that change, not just because its joint venture (JV) with Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Total E&P USA Inc. can bring more wells into sales, but because its 21% interest in the Utica East Ohio Midstream facility will be there to process production from the JV's combined 1 million net acres.

Along with Access Midstream Partners LP and M3 Midstream LLC, the facility sprawls across three counties to gather, process, store and transport natural gas liquids (see Shale Daily, May 16, 2012). The first processing train at its Kennsington plant in Columbiana County, OH, came online over the summer, and the second was operational as of last week, providing 400 MMcf/d of capacity.

Another 400 MMcf/d will be added when Natrium 1 and 2 are operational next quarter. New ethanizers at UEO's Harrison Hub will be operational next month as well, Houser said. The Appalachia-to-Texas Express pipeline will also assist in carrying ethane off the gas stream as it prepares to start commercial service next month (see Shale Daily, Dec. 5).

As a result, Houser said EVEP's JV will drill 160 wells in the Utica next year. It also has plans to drill 10-15 wells with between five to seven different operators outside its JV. Of those, two to four wells will be drilled in the volatile oil window, where Houser said the challenge remains to determine how well the oil will flow from the formation there. EVEP has been conducting reservoir simulation modeling and hydraulic fracture studies to significantly improve well productivity in the underdeveloped window.

In all, Houser said the JV drilling program calls for 4,600 wells over the next 18 years. EVEP's 9% interest in Cardinal Gas Services, which is working to hook gathering lines up to Chesapeake wells at a current rate of 20 per month, will improve as capacity restraints are expected to ease by the summer of 2014..

Ohio has permitted 1,024 horizontal wells to date, with 636 drilled thus far. Just 250 of those are producing, though, as many wait for infrastructure to process and transport the hydrocarbons. Houser said he expects type curves to significantly enhance in the play during the next year or so as more wells begin to flow.