Gulfport Energy Corp. says it may spend more than $400 million this year to tap Ohio’s Utica shale, a strong indication that there is a lot more money to be found drilling deep underground in the eastern part of the state.

The $249 million Oklahoma energy company has some of the state’s strongest-producing wells in what are still the early stages of developing the Utica shale for its oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids.

Company executives on Wednesday discussed Gulfport financial figures and outlook for the year after releasing fourth quarter and fiscal 2012 earnings previously on Tuesday.

Gulfport expects to spend between $382 million to $426 million this year in Ohio and drill as many as 50 gross wells, company executives said. Gulfport’s total capital expenditures this year will be between $458 million and $512 million, the company said.

The company’s first 10 Utica shale wells have averaged the equivalent of 3,630 barrels of oil per day in natural gas, oil and natural gas liquids. Gulfport owns the rights to drill on 128,000 acres in Ohio.

“We plan to accelerate our 2013 drilling program in the Utica,” Jim Palm, Gulfport’s chief executive officer, told industry analysts in a conference call Wednesday afternoon.

Gulfport has other oil and gas operations in the United States and Canada, but the Utica shale is the company’s primary focus now, Palm said.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Utica shale may produce between 1.3 billion to 5.5 billion barrels of oil and as much as 15.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At Wednesday’s closing price of $92.77 per barrel, that puts the Utica shale’s crude oil potential value between $120.6 billion and $510.2 billion.

Gulfport will be experimenting with different drilling and fracking methods to find the most productive method of extracting liquids and gas from the Utica shale, Palm said. Gulfport will drill two wells per location pad at most of its sites, he said.

Gulfport’s drilling activity is expected to increase in the spring and continue into summer, then level off.

It can take five to seven months from when a well is drilled to when the first gas and fluid sales take place, Palm said.

Gulfport’s activities will include drilling new “Darla” wells just north of its strong-producing Wagner wells in Ohio’s Harrison County. It also will drill additional wells on its Wagner site, too.

The Darla wells will be unique in part because Gulfport will drill three wells per pad instead of two. The company also will experiment with the pattern of its horizontal drilling, the kind of materials it injects to hydraulically fracture, or frack, the shale and more, Palm said.

“We will be putting in radioactive markers” to trace the wells, he said. The company will utilize fiber optic sensors and other technology at a cost of about $600,000 per well that will tell Gulfport “in real time” what is happening thousands of feet underground, he said.

The information gathered by the tracing and sensors will help the company determine such things as how much and what type of fracking sand to use, how far apart to space wells and other information. The idea is to help the company figure out where it can reduce costs and not hurt production, Palm said.

Gulfport earned $15.9 million, or 28 cents per share, on revenue of $56.6 million for the fourth quarter ending Dec. 31. Earnings were down from $30 million, or 59 cents per share, on revenue of $68.9 million a year ago. While earnings were down from a year ago, they beat consensus estimates from industry analysts; quarterly revenue fell a bit short of estimates.

For fiscal 2012, Gulfport reported net income of $68.4 million, or $1.21 a share, on revenue of $248.9 million. Net income was down from $108.4 million, or $2.20 a share, on revenue of $229.3 million in 2011. Shares on Wednesday rose $3.37 to $39.33, meaning the company was worth $2.99 billion. Shares are up 9.9 percent from a year ago.

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com