Over the course of the last 20 years, oil and gas companies have cultivated a vast metallic forest beneath the world’s oceans, consisting now of some 5,800 installed subsea trees. The growth of this artificial arboretum has supported an array of related offshore fabrication, installation and IMR industries. But how to assess the outlook for this complex sector? Well, one key metric is the subsea tree backlog…

Into The Woods

The tree ‘backlog’ is the ‘orderbook’ of subsea trees. It is constituted by trees ordered by oil companies from subsea fabricators that have not yet been installed. A tree itself is the tall array of valves that caps a well; unlike ‘dry’ trees, subsea or ‘wet’ trees are located on the seabed, rather than on fixed platforms or MOPUs. While fields can host various subsea structure types, trees are at the core of nearly all subsea developments. Hence, the backlog is a key proxy for subsea CAPEX and subsea construction vessel demand. The real boom for the subsea sector came in period of high oil prices after 2009, as innovation in the subsea sector facilitated deepwater frontier projects in West Africa, Brazil and the US GoM. The backlog grew from 647 units in Q3 2009 to a peak of 1,158 at start Q4 2014 – an increase of 79%. At this point a number of large projects utilising subsea trees had recently reached the EPC stage, including TEN (Ghana, $4.9bn, 36 trees), Egina (Nigeria, $15bn, 44 trees) and Buzios (Brazil, $2.6bn, 20 trees). The charter rate for a large (250t crane) MSV in the North Sea, meanwhile, stood at around $52-59,000/day.

Cut Down To Size

However, like other offshore sectors, the subsea sector has been adversely affected by weaker oil prices (and the paralysis at Petrobras). Initially the backlog provided a degree of insulation for fabricators and installation contractors. The backlog is eroding though, having fallen y-o-y in each of the last nine quarters by between 1% and 14%. As at start Q2 2016, it stood at 876 units, down 24% on the Q4 2013 peak. Installers have been working through the backlog while new awards have dwindled (only 59 trees have been contracted in 2016 as at start May) due to a dearth of project FIDs. True, the subsea sector has held up better than the rig or OSV sectors (in part due to IMR demand, not captured by the backlog size) but North Sea dayrates for a 250t MSV have fallen by 34% since Q2 2014, to $32-43,000/day at start May 2016.

New Spring?

Could things in subsea get as challenging as in the rig and OSV sectors? Perhaps, but that depends on the timing of the recovery in offshore project FIDs. Besides, the downturn is not all bad for subsea – in the long run. In order to reduce field development costs, companies are increasingly relying on subsea efficiency gains – Statoil’s subsea standardisation drive is a notable example of this. As costs at subsea projects fall, more such projects are likely to receive FIDs. New tree awards are expected to recover to around 300 per annum by the end of the decade.

So subsea seems to be becoming more challenged, as reflected in the falling subsea tree backlog. But subsea is likely to play a key part in the recovery too. The arrival of new awards, followed by a sustained increase in backlog, will be a good indicator of when the offshore market is out of the woods.