Two high-level indicators of vessel and structure demand in the offshore sector are energy prices and oil company E&P spending. A third, slightly more specific indicator is estimated offshore project capital expenditure, or CAPEX. While this metric does not capture demand arising from, for example, offshore exploration campaigns, it can be a key proxy for demand resulting from offshore EPC activity.

CAPEX Defined

Since the start of 2010, around $980bn of CAPEX has been committed to some 669 offshore projects globally. But just what makes up offshore project CAPEX? As defined herein, it consists of estimated capital invested in the development, redevelopment or decommissioning of offshore fields; it excludes spending on licensing rounds, seismic surveys and exploration wells, as well as operational expenditure arising from manning and IMR at active fields. CAPEX is committed via EPC contracts, usually issued soon after a project final investment decision (FID), for items such as MOPUs, fixed platforms, pipelines and subsea trees, as well as support, installation and development drilling services. CAPEX also translates into field developments that create durable demand for OSVs. CAPEX data collected by Clarksons Research is as specified by project operators; where no definitive figure is given, estimates are derived from assessment of comparable projects with known CAPEX.

Measuring CAPEX

One advantage of CAPEX as a metric is that, unlike a count of project FIDs, it reflects the differing ‘weight’ of projects. Indeed, project CAPEX can vary by several orders of magnitude. The B-173A Expansion project off India, for example, entailed the installation of a second shallow water fixed platform on the B-173A gas field. The project, which started up in 2015, had a reported price tag of $67m. In contrast, the ongoing 230,000 bpd Kaombo Ph.1 development off Angola has a reported CAPEX of $16bn. This wide variation in costs helps to explain recent CAPEX trends. During the 2011 to 2013 boom years, estimated CAPEX averaged $204bn p.a. globally, supported by high energy prices and rising E&P budgets. As oil prices tumbled in 2014, CAPEX fell by 54% y-o-y. CAPEX in 2015 was steady on 2014, even though FIDs fell by 41%, as a few giant projects with low breakevens, such as Johan Sverdrup (Norway, $12bn) and WND Ph.1 (Egypt, $12bn), received FIDs. However, other FIDs have continued to slip in the downturn. CAPEX so far in 2016 stands at around $40bn, down 34% y-o-y on an annualised basis.

CAPEX As An Indicator

As offshore CAPEX has fallen, EPC tendering has suffered, and hence, for example, MOPU newbuild contracting has dropped from an average of 18 units p.a. in 2010 to 2013, to just eight units in 2015 and two in 2016 to date. Similarly, 16 pipelayers were contracted in the same period, but only one unit has been ordered since 2013, reflecting depressed utilisation and earnings. Until CAPEX begins to increase once more, these sectors are likely to remain challenged.

In terms of spotting a recovery, then, it is worth keeping an eye on oil companies’ offshore project CAPEX plans. For not only is CAPEX one of a range of factors affecting offshore markets; it is a useful indicator with particular relevance to EPC-led vessel activity and investment too.