As a result of weaker oil prices and E&P spending cuts, offshore exploration is severely challenged. This is reflected in the fact that discoveries are down 47% y-o-y on an annualised basis so far in 2016, global rig utilisation has dropped 22 percentage points to 73% in two years, and 29% of seismic units are inactive. But it is also reflected in a perhaps less prominent element of exploration, namely, block awards.

Block Basics

The basic framework for offshore exploration is provided by blocks. Blocks are areas in which specific oil companies (the licensees) have set E&P rights and obligations with respect to one another and the host country over a specified period. As at April 2016, oil companies hold 10,968 offshore blocks (with an average area of 996 km2) globally. As a general rule, each block will have an operator company, but also several more companies with equity in the block. This allows oil companies to spread the risks of E&P.

Blocks may be awarded to oil companies on a one-off basis but are usually awarded through well-publicised, semi-regular licensing rounds, for example Norway’s ongoing ‘23rd Licensing Round’. Indeed, at present eight offshore rounds are in progress, covering 55 blocks. However, oil company uptake is looking lacklustre and it is expected that, given low levels of interest, a very small percentage of these will be awarded. Just 102 offshore blocks have been awarded so far in 2016, down 38% y-o-y on an annualised basis on a poor 2015. By way of comparison, 1,162 offshore blocks were awarded in 2013.

Acreage Accumulation

In part, this situation reflects reduced E&P spending (exploration budgets are relatively easy to cut). But it also reflects something of a block ‘asset bubble’ in the 2010 to 2014 period, in which 5.99 million km2 of offshore acreage was awarded. Supported by a high and stable oil price, many oil companies stocked up on frontier acreage, engaging in bidding wars for key blocks, driving up prices. For example, in a battle for a 8.5% share in Area 1 off Mozambique in 2012, the block was implicitly valued at c.$14 billion (and East Africa was just one of several frontiers opened up in this period). Oil companies thus acquired a great deal of relatively costly offshore acreage in a short period.

Exploration Excesses

On the plus side, the exploration boom of 2010 to 2014 yielded 765 offshore discoveries, including many large finds that are likely to drive future offshore production growth. However, block oversupply, analogous to that in segments of the offshore fleet, built up. As the two graphs show, the peak of the latest block awards cycle coincided with a 2013 peak in ordering of rigs (117 units) and seismic capacity (104 streamers). Just as there is a supply-demand imbalance in the seismic and rig markets, so too is there in blocks. Oil companies are now sitting on a backlog of unexplored blocks, with fewer incentives to bid for new acreage (though strategic investment in Iran or deepwater Mexico might still happen).

So licensing reflects the broader exploration situation, with block awards and vessel contracting showing similar trends. This being the case, a future rise in block awards could perhaps presage a general recovery in exploration. In gauging exploration sentiment then, upcoming licensing rounds could well be worth monitoring.

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