The Utica Shale could be more profitable than the Marcellus Shale, but it could also prove to be more challenging, a Consol Energy Inc. executive suggested at a conference in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

“I think this play is going to be very different to the Marcellus Shale. It’s not going to be quite as ubiquitous, there’s going to be sweet spots within the Point Pleasant,” Richard Goings, Consol vice president of geosciences, said at the Platts Fourth Annual Appalachian Gas conference. “It’s going to be a little more irregular and measured than what we’re seeing in the Marcellus.”

Consol recently made the Utica a priority by partnering with Hess Corp. on nearly 200,000 acres in eastern Ohio. That joint venture is set to close on Friday, and the companies expect to drill their first horizontal Utica well within the next three weeks (see Shale Daily, Sept. 8).

Consol traces its interest in the Utica to the Barnesville No. 1, a vertical underground injection well it drilled in Belmont County, OH, in late 2010. The well unexpectedly encountered a natural gas show in the Point Pleasant — an associated formation below the Utica — around 8,450 feet that flowed at 1.5 MMcf/d over two days. “It is sustainable,” Goings said. “We think it’s real.”

To prove it, the joint venture plans to do a lot of drilling in the coming years.

Although Consol and Hess only expect to drill two Utica wells this year, Goings said the companies plan to drill about 65 wells per year using five rigs starting in 2015. Hess will operate the program in the wet gas counties of Jefferson, Belmont, Harrison and Guernsey.

To fully develop their leasehold in the play, Goings said the companies could drill up to 900 horizontal wells on 102,500 acres in the oil window, another 545 horizontal wells on 83,500 acres in the wet gas window and 75 horizontal wells on 11,500 acres in the dry gas window.

Utica development is so new that companies are still identifying the boundaries of the three phases. While Consol thought it was drilling in the wet gas window when it drilled the Barnesville No. 1 last year, the well produced a “very smokey, oily flare,” Goings said.

Consol estimates that its Utica holdings contain 338 million bbl of oil and 3.9 Tcf of natural gas and “obviously the reason the focus is on Ohio at the moment is because of the wet gas and oil.”

Dry gas, wet gas and oil in the Utica moved Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon to call it “analogous, but economically superior” to the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas (see Shale Daily, Aug. 1). Goings said that is “a bit of a misnomer” because he believes most of the drilling and production will actually come from the Point Pleasant formation directly below the Utica.

That said, “the Utica does compare very favorably with the other shales,” Goings said, noting that the thickness and total organic content of the Utica/Point Pleasant is similar to the Eagle Ford.