On July 14th 2015, after 20 months of negotiations, Iran and the so-called “P5+1” signed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”: in return for US, EU and UN-mandated sanctions against the country being gradually lifted, Iran has agreed to roll back its nuclear capabilities. Should the deal stick, the door will open to foreign investment once more. What, then, are the possible implications for Iranian offshore oil? Should this deal stick, IOCs will soon be able to operate in Iran once more. What, then, are the possible implications for Iran’s offshore sector?

Political Locks

On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, total Iranian oil production stood at 6.0m bpd, of which around 12% (0.72m bpd) was from 13 offshore fields producing oil, all located in shallow waters and exploited via fixed platforms. The turmoil of the Revolution saw oil production drop to 1.70m bpd in 1980, and in the ensuing Iran-Iraq War, offshore fields like Salman were shut in due to military action. As a result, actual offshore oil production was less than 50% of capacity for most of the 1980s; after the War, production began to recover, peaking at 88% of capacity (0.60m bpd) in 1997. However, as US and then EU economic sanctions on Iran tightened, IOCs were forced to exit the country, depriving Iran’s offshore sector of key investment and technology. Development work slowed and much of Iran’s offshore 2P reserves (30.3bn bbl of oil; 707 tcf of gas) were locked away. At the same time, Iran lacked the resources to implement EOR at brownfields. As a result, the gap between actual and nameplate offshore production was 1.38m bpd by 2014, with production at 0.54m bpd.

Rusty Hinges

Now that sanctions are to be lifted, indications suggest Iran aims to get as much oil production as possible back onstream in 2015/16. Restoring offshore production is likely to require more than just turning the taps though. Iran’s ability to halt decline at brownfields has been curbed, in contrast to other mature producers like the U.A.E. Half of Iran’s active offshore oil fields predate the Revolution (the oldest started up in 1961). Extensive EOR work is likely to be required at such fields – one opportunity for IOCs. Thus, while offshore production is forecast to grow by 7.3% in 2015, this is mostly due to South Pars condensate production ramping up, rather than utilisation of older capacity.

An Alternative Entrance?

Iran is planning an “oil contract roadshow” in London in 2H 2015, with the stated aim of attracting foreign investment in E&P of $185 billion by 2020. However, it is likely that much of the investment will be directed towards stalled onshore projects such as Yadavaran, and to restoring production at mature onshore fields like Azadegan. A spate of onshore discoveries made from 2006 to 2008 may also be prioritised by cash-hungry Iran, particularly those in the Khuzestan province spanning the Iraq border. Some of Iran’s 7 undeveloped offshore fields like Esfandiar (532m bbl) may warrant priority, and the South Pars Oil Layer is scheduled to come onstream in 2018. But even taking into account the Caspian (home to the 2011 Sardar-e Jangal 500m bbl find), offshore oil opportunities for IOCs (and so vessel owners) may be limited at first.

It seems, then, that the offshore oil capacity gap could widen before it narrows. Certainly given its reserves Iran has long-term offshore potential, notwithstanding its troubled history. But observers expecting a quick and big uptick in oil-related offshore activity might need to be patient.

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