As the recent plunge in oil prices sees some operators tightening their belts and their appetite for exploration seemingly diminishing, can development drilling provide alternative demand amidst the doom and gloom? The North Sea serves as an interesting example of an active drilling market throughout E&P cycles. Could this observation have implications for rig activity within other regions?

Playing The Risk

The assessment of “risk”, both financial and operational, is one of the most important factors for International Oil Companies (IOCs) when considering future projects. In periods of high oil prices, when company revenues are high and debts are low, operators are prepared to take on higher risk, lower margin projects, and are more comfortable in increasing their exposure to exploration. In a low oil price environment however, companies focus on low risk projects and increasing returns on investment, as opposed to riskier exploration operations.

Produce A Winner

This lower tolerance to risk often results in reductions to exploration budgets and activity, in particular drilling operations. In the last 12 months, global drilling rig utilisation has declined from 95% down to 89% as oil prices have declined to under $70/bbl. This trend has been typical throughout history. In 1985-87, historical reports show that global rig utilisation declined drastically from almost 90% to around 50%, following the oil price crash of the mid-80s. Despite this, some areas have fared much better than others through the bust periods

As the Graph of the Month shows, the number of wells drilled per year in the North Sea during the years 1980-98 increased from 335 to 618, despite the oil price declining to $18/bbl (inflation adjusted to 2013 $/bbl). As companies focussed on increasing production from their portfolio of newly discovered fields, increases in development drilling far outweighed declines in exploration work.
Over the same period, the share of development drilling increased from 68% to 86%, and by end-2002 over 90% of wells drilled were for field developments. This increase, throughout a period of depressed oil prices, highlights the need for development work following exploration.

Develop Your Game

In areas where the number of undeveloped fields is high (the North Sea reached an estimated peak of 583 by end year 1992), it is inevitable that development drilling becomes more prominent, as exploration operations become riskier and thus more expensive. Today, areas such as West Africa and SE Asia, where the current number of undeveloped fields total 379 and 506, are examples of this, and could witness an increase in development drilling similar to that seen in the North Sea during the 80s and 90s.

Whilst reduced exploration will likely result in short-term declines in rig utilisation and dayrates, other sources of demand could exist. Though wildcat spuds and discoveries may dwindle in the near term, areas of previously high exploration activity could see alternative demand for rigs through development drilling. After that? Well, perhaps the world will still have to go and find more oil.