In the years since 1959, 7,367 offshore fields have been discovered globally, with 4,173 of these having been brought onstream (3,062 are still active). The average water depth of discoveries and start-ups is now far deeper than a few decades ago. But contrary to what might be expected, this appears to be not the result of gradual trends in E&P activity. Instead, deepwater activity has surged in distinct waves…

Shallow Water Drift

Offshore E&P activity began, quite naturally, in shallow waters close to shore, as a logical progression from exploiting onshore oil and gas fields in locations such as Texas and Saudi Arabia. This also reflected technological barriers: the capability did not exist to exploit deepwater fields. So from 1960 to 1996, the annual average water depth of offshore discoveries and start-ups was 94m and 59m respectively. Depths did drift slightly deeper from 1960 to 1996 as for example North Sea E&P activity moved from the Southern to the Central North Sea. But even in 1996, the mean offshore discovery water depth was just 212m. The first ever deepwater discovery was the MC 113 field in the US GoM in 1976 but this was atypical: just 4% of 3,062 offshore fields found from 1976 to 1996 were in such depths.

Deepwater Heave

The first wave of sustained deepwater E&P ran from about 1997 to 2006. It was heralded by the 1997 Neptune start-up in the US GoM in a water depth of 568m. This was the first ever Spar development and showed that US deepwater fields could be economically exploited, contributing to a rush of deepwater E&P in the GoM against a backdrop of faltering US onshore oil production growth and gradually rising oil prices. Some 440 fields in depths of at least 500m were found from 1996 to 2007; 38% of these were in the US GoM. This period also saw the internationalisation of the offshore sector, with oil companies making deepwater finds in areas like West Africa, which accounted for 26% of the 440 discoveries. Here the key enablers were subsea trees, which helped reduce field breakevens to viable levels. All told, the average depth of offshore finds from 1997 to 2006 was 402m.

Ultra-Deepwater Upsurge

A second wave of deepwater E&P has been ongoing since about 2007. Oil companies have pushed into ultra-deepwater frontiers, notably in the Santos Basin off Brazil, helped by advances in pre-salt seismic imaging, but also in the KG Basin off India, off East Africa and off countries such as Guyana or Senegal. Since 2006, with oil prices generally high, there have been 392 finds in water depths of at least 1,500m (67% of such discoveries made to date). The average water depth of discoveries in this period so far is 628m.

Ebb And Flow?

However, offshore start-ups have lagged in terms of water depth. Since 2006, the average depth of 1,032 start-ups has been just 326m (with large variance from the mean). Several factors are at play but key are high breakeven oil prices at frontier projects (especially in the downturn) inhibiting FIDs, and political risk factors.

So given current offshore markets and long term trends in start-up water depths, a tsunami of deepwater start-ups looks unlikely at present. That being said, field discovery water depths – lifted on tides of regionalised E&P activity and new technologies – have clearly risen in waves.

OIMT201704

Advertisements