While oil and gas drilling is not new in Ohio, the combination of horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing is causing many in the oil and gas business to see the Utica as a potential industry game-changer.

Expanding on its growth-oriented business strategy, Gulfport Energy Corp., which has major operating areas in Southern Louisiana and the Permian Basin, turned its attention toward the potential of the Utica. After an opportunistic acreage search within the play, and with a little bit of luck and a lot of science, the company has developed a short but successful tenure in the area.

“It’s been quite a ride up there,” Jim Palm, Gulfport’s chief executive, said at Hart Energy’s recent 2012 DUG East Conference in Pittsburgh. “We’ve been really pleasantly surprised with the results we got. I am sure we had a little luck, but I think we’ve got some science that went with it to produce the type of results that we’ve had.”

The company first began acquiring acreage in early 2011, according to Palm. Based on a geological and petrophysical analysis conducted by Gulfport’s scientific research team, along with an overlapping mapping technique, the company was able to target a proverbial “sweet spot” to begin acquisitions.

“First we targeted the liquids window and looked for the wet gas,” Palm said. “Our guys looked through the available research. We looked at the depth. We then looked at the total organic carbon (TOC), and we looked at the thickness. So when you overlay these maps we came up this sweet spot, and that’s where we started buying acreage in 2011.”

The company now has 62,500 net acres in the Utica.

After completing the leasing process, Gulfport enlisted the help of noted reservoir engineer Bill Von Gonten to conduct a bit of “pre-drilling science,” Palm said.

Van Gonten discovered some key factors that became essential to Gulfport’s drilling strategy, according to Palm.

“We learned some interesting things from Bill,” he said.  “Based upon some core information, Bill determined that the Eagle Ford and Point Pleasant are very similar reservoirs. You can see the porosity and permeability are very similar. One of the most important things is the calcite. These are very brittle formations, and that’s good because when the hydrocarbons are generated it’s like popping popcorn.

“Another unique thing that we see is the 3% water saturation. Bill also did some work with frac stage simulations. He started with ten stages, then twelve stages and so on. He found a straight line relationship until he got to nineteen stages. The curve broke and we still continued to gain, just at a lesser rate.”

Utilizing some simple math, according to Palm, Von Gonten and Gulfport discovered that a 225-foot frac stage was most advantageous.

“So we biased ourselves in the beginning toward short frac lengths,” he said. “Intuitively it seemed pretty short, but he’s the scientist. That’s what he came up with, and so we decided to adopt that and it’s worked out real well.

“We started off thinking conceptually about 1,000 feet between horizontal wells. Now we are firmly convinced, after doing some micro-seismic testing, that will not be the case and that they will be much closer than that.”

And so, the drilling began. Gulfport started work on its first Utica well, the Wagner, in February. As drilling progressed the scientific analysis continued. The company, Palm said, was “drilling for data.”

During the drilling process Gulfport studied target intervals, analyzed the Ingrain digital core, examined rock-type intervals and employed NuTech Energy to run multiple frac simulations.

“We broke it down foot by foot,” he said. “We looked at the quality of every foot in there and then we analyzed how we wanted to frac the wells. We looked at the size of sands. We looked at maximum sand concentration, stage lengths and average pump rates. After all of that we ran a series of simulations, and that helped us figure just exactly how we wanted to frac the well,” Palm said.

Once drilling was completed Gulfport ended up with, according to Palm, the “longest lateral and longest measured depth drill in the state of Ohio.” Yet, that mark will soon be surpassed by Gulfport’s second drill, the Stetson, he said.

Gulfport, which has already planned for early pipeline infrastructure and takeaway with MarkWest Energy Partners, expects to drill about 50 gross Utica wells in 2013.