COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Officials say drilling in Ohio's Utica Shale region nearly doubled the output of oil and natural gas there since 2011, although some industry experts remain cautious about the long-term potential for production.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday that the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the shale region of eastern Ohio increased the oil output year-over-year by 93 percent and the natural gas output by 80 percent in that time.
A total of 87 Utica wells - representing less than 1 percent of all oil and gas wells in the state - produced 12 percent of Ohio's total oil production and 16 percent of the total gas production for 2012, the state agency said.
Data from the 87 wells drilled by 11 companies showed they produced 12.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas and natural-gas liquids and 635,896 barrels of oil last year.
The department says it expects Utica Shale well production to exceed the yearly output of all of Ohio's nearly 51,000 existing conventional wells by as early as 2015.
"We believe Ohio is now at the beginning of a historic era of oil and gas production," James Zehringer, the department's director, said at a press conference.
But some industry experts and analysts were hoping for bigger numbers and say the process remains slow.
"It's still very preliminary data," Ben Ebenhack, professor of petroleum engineering at Marietta College, said.
He said the average producing time is about four months for those wells that are producing and "that's a pretty narrow window of observation."
Mark Jordan, president of Knox Energy in Columbus, also said it's too early to make any conclusions from the data.
The data do appear to indicate that natural gas will be more dominant than oil in the Utica Shale region, with the oil volumes lower than had been projected.
"It's shaping up largely as a natural-gas play," Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said.
But Stewart said he wasn't discouraged, adding that "this is a process that takes time to develop."
He also said large quantities of oil may still be found in sections of the region.
The chief of the state's Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management said Thursday that the state predicts shale wells will produce about 73 percent of Ohio's oil and about 82 percent of its natural gas by 2015 and an estimated 662 Utica wells will be in production by the end of next year.
"This is significant growth," Richard Simmers said.
The numbers were encouraging to Donald Fischbach, a partner with Calfee, Halter and Griswold in Cleveland, and chairman of the firm's energy and natural resources group.
"But if the infrastructure were there, and the wells could produce unrestrained, I think the numbers would be better," he said.