The Pinedale Anticline in southwestern Wyoming, home to the prolific Jonah Field, covers only about 90 square miles on about 150,000 acres, but the natural gas output from the fairway’s tight sands has been nothing short of remarkable. Producers now are conducting tests that could make output from the play even more remarkable — because of the unknown potential of the region’s gas shale.

Ultra Petroleum Corp. CEO Michael Watford, whose company is one of the largest producers in the region, said Thursday that his company was “looking forward to 40 or 50 years of easy production from the Pinedale…We don’t drill horizontal wells, everything’s vertical.” However, speaking to attendees at the Lehman Brothers CEO Energy/Power Conference in New York City, Watford hinted that the company may have plans down the road to go sideways.

The Houston-based independent’s Anticline drilling program mostly targets the upper cretaceous Lance Sand Fairway formation, which runs through the Anticline and Jonah field. The formation is at least 65 million years old — a thick sequence of tight, overpressured, gas-charged sands, with the thickest accumulations of potential pay sands underneath the Anticline.

But gas sands are not the formation’s only characteristic. The fairway, which is a “smallish” 150,000 acres on nine square miles is actually a thick sequence of interbedded sand — and gas shale — with pay thickness reaching more than 1,000 feet in some areas.

“We are doing more work in nonsands, like the Barnett, Woodford [shales],” said Watford. Ultra has done 3-D seismic tests across the play. “If you look at a section, you have shallower, behind-pipe reserves. The Pinedale is a nonsand play, and the core analysis shows the entire play. We think we have sands in shale. We’ve only done a handful so far, but if we can add more pay, more gas in place because of shale, then obviously, the gas in place has to go up.”

According to the Wyoming State Geological Survey, the “organic-rich Cretaceous shales in Wyoming are outstanding source rocks and should be considered potential shale gas targets.” Successful gas shale plays in Wyoming, it said, will probably “be in a geological setting conducive to fracturing,” which has been the key to success in Texas’ Barnett Shale. “With new drilling and completion techniques, the recovery of stored natural gas in the Cretaceous shales of Wyoming could be substantial…”

If the gas shale tests by Ultra and its partners prove worthwhile, “this could be a huge adder for us if it works. But it will take several years to prove that,” said Watford. “We have proved there is gas in deep horizons.” He said Ultra and Shell Exploration, which also is a large Anticline operator, are jointly drilling another well, which is expected to be completed before November. “We’ll get down and test again and see what we have. It is a huge resource possibility for us.”

How huge? As Donald Trump would say, “HUGE.” The Jonah field is now the sixth largest field in the United States based on its gas reserves, and the Anticline holds the second largest amount of reserves behind the San Juan Basin.

For now, Ultra doesn’t have to wait to see if that gas shale thing works out. Ultra is forecasting a 27% gain in its estimated production this year. Since Jan. 1, Ultra and its partners Questar Corp. and Shell have ramped up 115 new wells in the Anticline at an average initial rate of 8.1 MMcf/d; maximum initial rate of 15.3 MMcf/d, Watford said. And Ultra “hopes to participate in 200 gross wells this year with Questar and Shell.”

“Clearly, we’ve had a lot of successful wells this year,” said Watford.

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