Foreign companies continue to take a strong interest in US shale assets, with French oil firm Total’s $2.32 billion payout for a 25% share of a Utica Shale play in Ohio owned by Chesapeake Energy a recent highlight.

Some of the acreage for the new joint venture, which underlies all or most of ten counties in the latest region targeted by firms for both natural gas and oil or natural gas liquids was provided by Houston-based Enervest. The deal, announced December 31, 2011, covers 619,000 acres that Chesapeake says is in the “liquids-rich area of the Utica Shale,” and underlies all or a portion of ten counties in the Eastern part of the state.

Ohio is an unlikely region to reemerge as an energy production center, but success with natural gas and liquids shale development in Pennsylvania and other parts of the US’ first oil patch has highlighted opportunities in the state. Total reserves numbers are staggering, with estimates as high as 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas; read a profile of the Utica Shale on Breaking Energy here.

While Chesapeake will serve as operator of the joint venture and conduct all leasing, drilling, completing, operating and market activity for the project, Total will receive a 25% share of all additional acreage acquired in the joint venture project and will participate as a 25% owner in any midstream infrastructure related to production, like pipelines. Midstream natural gas and oil assets have become increasingly valuable as domestic US production has grown and difficulty in permitting new oil and gas transport infrastructure has been highlighted by the repeated delays and public controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline. Energy transportation firm Kinder Morgan paid $38 billion for the midstream assets of El Paso in a 2010 deal making it the largest owner of pipelines in North America.

Total is making a high-profile bet on its partnership with Chesapeake, with which the French company participated in a joint venture in the Texas-based Barnett Shale play. Reserves estimates for the Utica and other shale plays, including those released by Chesapeake itself, have been criticized by both industry figures and opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, methods for extracting shale gas and liquids.

But with reserves in many developed regions of the world increasingly tapped out or difficult to access, and national oil companies focused on keeping control of their own reserves, international oil and gas companies are getting creative with joint ventures to access new reserves and shale technology. Chesapeake alone has signed seven joint ventures for a total leasehold consideration of $14.8 billion, company CEO Aubrey McClendon said in announcing the Total deal.

The Utica Shale deal is “consistent with our strategy to develop positions in unconventional plays with large potential and, in this case, with value predominantly linked to [the] oil price,” Total Exploration and Production President Yves-Louis Darricarrere said about the deal.