Since 1970, 179 offshore gas fields have been discovered in the Browse and Carnarvon Basins of Australia’s Northwest Shelf. From around 2005, as offshore technology advanced and Asian gas demand rose, operators hatched plans of monstrous magnitudes for these fields. However, in an environment of low oil prices and E&P spending cuts, some of these offshore behemoths now look more endangered.

Taming The Seas

The Australian NW Shelf accounts for about 15% of offshore projects globally with CAPEX of over $5bn. NW Shelf projects tend to be capital intensive, in part because they are remote, with an average distance to shore of 161km. Development thus entails long export pipelines (889km for Ichthys, for example) to onshore LNG plants, or as yet unproven FLNG technology. CAPEX in turn contributes to high project breakeven prices, as does OPEX: for example, OSVs make longer trips for far-from-shore projects. Until recently, high project breakevens stymied final investment decisions (FIDs). However, due in part to cost-saving subsea and cryo-technology, in 2007, Chevron approved Greater Gorgon, a $37bn multi-field project with reserves of 40 tcf. Subsequently, 11 more projects received positive FIDS, including Prelude ($12bn), Pluto ($16bn) and Wheatstone ($29bn).

Teething Problems

Since 2007, 4 of these projects have come onstream and the other 8 are due to begin ramping up 2015-17. However, these 12 projects have not been without their problems. Greater Gorgon, for instance, was first scheduled to start up in 2H 2014, rather than 2H 2015; CAPEX has risen by 49% to $55bn. Meanwhile projects yet to be sanctioned have seen FIDs delayed by operators trying to cut costs. Scarborough, a mooted $19bn FLNG development 286km from shore (which has now been delayed again due to the fall in the oil price) underwent multiple FEED studies following the 2010 pre-FEED. Before circumstances changed, a 2019 start-up briefly looked likely.

Monsters Have Feelings Too

NW Shelf gas projects are thought to be some of the more sensitive globally to the change in the oil price since mid-2014. Greater Gorgon’s breakeven is relatively low for the area, but still stands at $67/boe. Projects further from shore are thought to have higher breakevens, in the $80-100/boe range. No Australian project more than 250km from shore has passed FID, though 50% of those yet to reach EPC exceed this distance, casting doubts on their viability. Since the fall in the oil price, Scarborough’s FID has been postponed to 2017/18; start-up before 2023 is considered unlikely. Other projects facing fresh feasibility concerns include Equus, Browse, Greater Sunrise, Crux and Cash Maple. Indeed, the average slippage for such projects already stands at 40 months. Many may not now come onstream before 2023 and a paucity of start-ups is anticipated in the mid-term, 2018-22, due to delayed FIDs 2014-17.

Clearly, then, remote Australian mega-projects are subject to high costs and breakevens, which increases slippage risk. That being said, the long-term fundamentals of energy-hungry non-OECD economies still suggest remaining NW Shelf gas will be viable eventually. These mammoth projects are not extinct yet.