Over the hill; past its peak; long in the tooth: like a worn-out old racehorse, the North Sea E&P sector is sometimes discussed in disparaging terms. In recent years however, it has been making something of a comeback, gaining ground when it comes to exploration and at least holding steady-ish when it comes to production. The question is, can this pace be sustained in the current oil price environment?

Saddling Up

The UK and Norway have long been the front-runners when it comes to offshore activity in the North Sea. In the 1970s, an average of 187 offshore wells were spudded per year in UK and Norwegian waters. As the graph shows, in the years 1970-76, more than 50% of these were exploration wells. Production was low (0.85m boepd in 1975), as few of the discoveries made since the first find in 1965 had been developed. But then in 1976, Brent started up, with Ekofisk following in 1977. During the course of bringing these and other large fields onstream, appraisal and development drilling raced ahead of exploration; from 1990, the number of exploration wells drilled each year began falling too. Field operators were now focusing on production over exploration. The two countries’ offshore production peaked in 2002 at 8.64m boepd from 337 fields. This year was also the nadir for exploration drilling: of 503 wells spudded, just 32 (6.4%) were exploration wells.

Second Wind

Oil companies therefore found total production falling just as reserves were being replaced at the slowest rate since North Sea exploration began. The more prudent then applied the spur to exploration once more, even as they tried to stop production decline using EOR. Exploration in the years 2003-14 in the central North Sea met with some notable successes, like the giant Johan Sverdrup discovery in 2010, with 2P reserves of 2.2bn bbl oil and 394bn cf gas. Operators also began venturing into the mostly unexplored Barents Sea and west of Shetlands waters. Hence, in 2014, 27% of wells spudded in UK or Norwegian waters were for exploration, a share similar to the late 1980s. Production, meanwhile, fell by only 0.8% y-o-y, versus the average y-o-y decline over 2002-14 of 3.9%.

The Final Furlong?

The area’s offshore sector was thus moving at a relatively good pace. However, 2014 exploration campaigns and most incipient development projects were conceived in a more robust oil price environment than the present: E&P economics in frontier areas like the Barents Sea are highly uncertain while the oil price is less than $80/bbl. Perhaps then, with oil company spending cuts, the recovery in exploration will be stopped in its tracks and production decline may resume. On the other hand, some smaller operators are taking advantage of low rig and OSV day rates to increase exploration. Falling EPC costs could also help to reduce development project breakevens, flogging North Sea E&P onwards once more. And if the oil price were to return to $100/bbl+, then there is the potential for further upside.

So there you have it. The weaker oil price has made some oil companies pull on the reins, but there is still potential for the second burst of North Sea E&P activity to run on, in the right conditions. The area may no longer be the fiery colt of offshore E&P, but it probably has some way to run yet before being put out to pasture.