When it comes to superlative descriptions of oil and gas reserves, the Utica Shale may be in a class of its own.

The rock layer that extends from Quebec to Kentucky with major concentrations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia has been called the next big play for shale gas; attracted billions of dollars in land investment, and been hailed by Chesapeake Energy chief Aubrey McClendon as "one of the biggest discoveries in US history."

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It may contain even more energy potential than the Marcellus Shale -- a formation that lies above the Utica over some of the latter's range -- whose vast reserves of natural gas have themselves been called a "game-changer" for American energy independence.

According to an estimate from Ohio state geologists, that state's portion of the Utica alone could contain up to 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which would make it a significant contributor to national supplies of the fuel that will help cut greenhouse gas emissions and create thousands of jobs.

But the Utica is distinguished by also harboring natural gas liquids and large quantities of oil which have sparked a rush by energy companies to acquire leases on millions of acres of land, especially in eastern Ohio.

The Ohio geologists calculate there could be as many as 5.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil underlying their state's share of the Utica, or about a third of the expected production from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, the largest US oil reserve.

The Utica's riches have already generated investment from at least half a dozen oil and gas companies including Chesapeake Energy, the world's leading shale-gas producer, which has leased 1.25 million acres across the play, more than any competitor.

Widespread Impacts

"This is huge from the standpoint of energy independence," said Mike Arthur, a Pennsylvania State University geoscientist and co-director of the college's Marcellus Shale Center for Outreach and Research.

"It could even obviate the need for a pipeline from the tar sands," he said in reference to a proposed pipeline from Canada to Texas that has sparked opposition from environmentalists.