Archives for category: Offshore

In last year’s half year shipping report, we reported on an industry that “must do better”. With the ClarkSea Index averaging $10,040 per day in the first half (up 2% y-o-y but still 14% below trend since the financial crisis) there are still many subjects (sectors) struggling for good grades as our Graph of the Week shows. But are there some that are showing a bit more potential?

Don’t Rest On Your Laurels!

A year on from record lows, bulker earnings remain below trend (defined as the average since the financial crisis) but are showing signs of improvement. Capesize spot earnings moved from an average of $4,972/day in 1H 2016 to $13,086/day (75% below trend versus 33% below trend). Indeed, based on the first quarter alone, Panamax earnings moved above trend for the first time since 2014 and we have certainly seen lots of S&P activity. The containership sector has responded to the Hanjin bankruptcy with another wave of consolidation (the top ten liner companies now operate 75% of capacity) and some improvements, albeit with lots of volatility, in freight rates. Improved volumes, demolition and the re-alignment of liner networks, helped improve charter rates and indeed feeder containerships rates have moved above trend for the first time since 2011. Although some gains have been eroded moving into the summer, fundamentals for both these sectors suggest improvements in coming years but it may be a bumpy road!

Dropping Grades!

After solid marks in last year’s reviews, the tanker sectors tracked here have moved into negative territory compared to trend, with the larger ships feeling the biggest correction as fleet growth, particularly on the crude side, remains rapid and oil trade growth slows. Aside from a small pick-up in the LNG market in recent weeks, the gas markets remain weak, with VLGC earnings 42% below trend. Some increased activity, project sanctioning and investor interest has not yet taken offshore off the “naughty step” .

Still Top Of The Class?

The only sector significantly above trend for the first half is Ro-Ro, with rates for a 3,500lm vessel averaging euro 18,458/day, 42% above trend. There also continues to be strong interest in ferry and cruise newbuilding (the 2 million Chinese cruise passengers last year, now 9% of global volumes, is supporting a record orderbook of USD 44.2bn, as is the interest in smaller “expedition” ships). We must also give a mention to S&P volumes that are 60% above trend (51m dwt, up 50% y-o-y) and to S&P bulker values which improved 25% in the first quarter alone.

Showing Potential?

Upward revisions to trade estimates have been a feature of the first half, and we are now projecting full year growth of 3.4% (to 11.5bn tonnes and 57,000bn tonne-miles). Although demolition has slowed (down 55% y-o-y to 16m dwt), overall fleet growth of 2.3% is still below trend but an increase on 1H 2016 (1.6%). While there has been some pick-up in newbuild ordering to 24m dwt (up 27% y-o-y), this remains 52% below trend. Last year we speculated on an appointment with the headmaster – still possible but perhaps this year extra classes on regulation and technology? Have a nice day.


Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and is one of the founding members of OPEC. Despite this, their 2.5m bpd of oil production accounts for only 3% of global output. Venezuelan oil production declined over the last decade owing to complex geology and a difficult investment climate. However, several large IOC-operated gas fields offshore Venezuela could now offer some positivity.

The Hydrocarbon El Dorado

Venezuela’s 300bn bbl of oil reserves account for 18% of current global reserves. But 220bn bbls of these reserves are onshore in the Faja, or Orinoco heavy oil belt, which has produced around 1.3m bpd in recent years. Venezuelan heavy oil grades are a key part of world oil supply: many US refineries were designed to take its heavy grades of oil together with lighter Arab crudes, meaning the country is also important for the tanker market. But production from the Faja is expensive and technically challenging, and heavy crudes sell at a discount.

Making Heavy Work Of It

After the election of Hugo Chávez in 1999, Venezuela’s oil industry came under strain as social policies were funded by oil revenues, and reinvestment declined. After the 2003 general strike, 19,000 PDVSA employees were fired and replaced with government loyalists. Furthermore, in 2007, the government looked to capitalize on the high oil price environment by nationalizing international oil companies’ (IOCs’) assets.

Offshore production was always the minor fraction of Venezuela’s output (23%). However, lack of investment in maintenance hit it hard. This was particularly true of the very shallow water production in Lake Maracaibo, which has seen drilling for more than a century. Issues of pipeline leakage and even oil piracy on the lake helped production there decline. In total, output from the Maracaibo-Falcon basin (not exclusively offshore) fell 35% between 2008 and 2015. In total, offshore production is estimated to have dropped by about 38% to 0.57m bpd.

A Brighter And Lighter Future

The current political and fiscal situation in Venezuela offers little suggestion that it will be easy to arrest decline. However, a more permissive attitude to foreign investment may help. In October, agreements were signed to allow Chinese and Bulgarian investment to fund repairs offshore Lake Maracaibo. Perhaps more significant is the promise of gas, where greater IOC participation is permitted.

Trinidad, Venezuela’s very close neighbour, tripled their offshore production from 1998-2005. Venezuela has begun to make moves in the same direction, firstly via the Cardon IV project. The first field here, Perla, started up in 2015 run by an Eni-Repsol joint venture. As the graph shows, this has already had a small, but visible effect on Venezuelan gas output. Perla has reserves of 2.85bn boe and by Phase 3 is set to be producing 1.2 bcfd. This is likely to be added to from 2019 by up to 1 bcfd of output from the long-delayed Mariscal Sucre fields.

So, Venezuela has vast reserves but production has been falling. The political situation, combined with low oil prices, is likely to hinder any rapid turnaround in oil output. However, although progress has been slow, IOC involvement has at least provided some positive impetus for gas production offshore Venezuela.


A few weeks ago, OPEC and other major oil producers agreed to extend 1.73m bpd of production cuts until the end of Q1 2018. Despite this, oil prices have continued to slide, with Brent failing to close above $50/bbl this week. While a range of factors have contributed to this trend, perhaps the most important is US tight oil production. So what is going on in the shale patch? And why does it matter to shipping?

How Unconventional!

If nothing else, US tight oil production retains the ability to surprise. As was noted after the OPEC meeting in May (SIW 1,273), “it remains to be seen if shale production quickly offsets” the cuts. Well, if the early signs are anything to go by, this is clearly not an impossibility.

Tight or shale oil is oil extracted from otherwise almost impermeable geology via “fracking”, a process wherein fluids mixed with sands are pumped at pressure into well bores, creating fractures in the rock through which oil and gas can flow. In terms of oil price dynamics, the key aspect of shale projects is speed: they can have lead times measured in weeks and so are very responsive to changes in oil prices. But in turn, as tight oil production ramps up, it can put pressure on prices, as recent history shows.

Remarkable Resilience

The US tight oil sector really took off in 2011, with production more than tripling from 1.70m bpd to reach a peak of 5.47m bpd in March 2015, as the graph shows. At this point, tight oil accounted for 6% of global oil supply (96m bpd) and equated to 55% of the net growth in supply from 2011. Such rapid supply growth had not been priced into markets, a key factor in the 2014 oil price plunge. A partial revival in mid-2015 was smothered as US drilling was stimulated again. And, since the US land rig count hit a new low of 380 units in May 2016, activity has again been on the up; the November 2016 OPEC deal accelerated this and the land rig count now stands at over 900 units. Tight oil production growth now equates to around 35% of the OPEC cuts. Its resilience (via cost deflation) in the face of lower oil prices continues, it seems, though it may prove self-defeating yet again. Even so, tight oil could now be a long term part of the oil price context. A few years ago, forecasters saw US tight oil production peaking circa 2020. Revised projections taking into account new technologies and updated resource surveys do not see US tight oil output peaking before the 2030s.

More Surprises?

The negative and positive implications for shipping of higher oil prices were covered in detail previously (SIW 1,273). The converse applies to lower oil prices, with offshore suffering from reduced E&P activity but the merchant fleet perhaps seeing benefits from cheaper bunkers and crude oil trade growth. Tight oil also has implications for trade flows. For example, now that export restrictions have been lifted, around 0.7m bpd of crude oil was exported from the US via tankers in Q1 2017.

So a factor that was barely on the radar a decade ago has become a key determinant of oil prices, potentially for the long haul. Moreover, tight oil has a range of ramifications for shipping that merit close monitoring. Once again, shipping appears inextricably linked to a key facet of the global economy. Have a nice day.


China’s rapid economic growth over the last two decades has seen the country’s annual primary energy demand more than triple. Coal aside, the other key fuels powering China’s developing economy have been oil and gas. And while commodity imports have risen, economic growth has also incentivised more E&P activity in China itself. So how are things looking for China’s upstream sector, particularly offshore?

Venerable Ancestry

As of start May 2017, a total of 319 fields had been discovered offshore China (with 163 of these having been brought into production at some point) and around 5% of the active offshore fleet (over 500 units) was deployed in the country. Moreover, in 2017, 15% of total projected Chinese oil and gas production (4.43m boed) is forecast to be produced offshore.

Of course, things were not always thus. While oil extraction in China is thought to date back to antiquity, the modern industry took off during the era of Mao Zedong, in the 1950s and 1960s, with the exploitation of fields in the onshore Songliao Basin, notably the Daqing Complex, by the state. Offshore E&P was minimal before the late 1980s. As was the case in many countries, Chinese offshore oil production began at shallow water fields, in China’s case located in the Bohai Bay, Pearl River Delta and Beibu Gulf areas, which still account for 43%, 32% and 12% of the fields now active off China. A total of 139 offshore fields are in production across these three areas, of which 76% are exploited via fixed platforms. Shallow water E&P heavily influenced the development of the offshore fleet in the country: for instance, 11% of the active global jack-up fleet is deployed off China.

The Deepwater Leap Forwards

In recent years though, the drive to raise production has seen Chinese E&P shift into deeper waters, in mature areas as well as frontiers in the East China Sea, the Yinggeh Basin and the South China Sea. That being said, just 13 fields in depths of at least 500m have been found to date (the first in 2006), of which only two are active: Liwan 3-1 and Liuhua 34-2, both in the Pearl River Delta. Hence demand for high-spec floaters, MOPUs and OSVs remains limited. Deepwater E&P in China was led by IOCs, but then CNOOC began concerted independent efforts. However, this process has been slowed by the oil price downturn, which prompted the NOC to put deeper water projects such as Lingshui 17-2/22-1 and Liuhua 11-1 Surround on the backburner.

Conquering The Seas?

The outlook for Chinese offshore projects seems to have improved since the OPEC deal though, and CNOOC is reportedly planning over 120 offshore exploration wells in the next five years. But there are contrary factors, not least of which is political risk in the East and South China Seas, where China and neighbours such as Japan and Vietnam are engaged in bitter border disputes, notably over the “nine dash line”. Moreover, government plans to increase onshore shale gas output at Fuling and elsewhere may divert investment from costly offshore projects.

So there are clearly risks to continuing E&P off China in more frontier areas. But even as the country’s economy matures, energy demand growth is likely to remain substantial. The fundamentals thus suggest that the onwards march of E&P off China is likely to be far from over yet.


Global oil prices were buoyed in Q4 2016 by OPEC’s decision to cut production. Perhaps more surprising still was the extent of compliance with quotas, for an organisation with a past track record of over-production. At their recent meeting, OPEC overcame some members’ objections and agreed to extend the cuts until March 2018. How will this affect the oil price and how does it impact the shipping industry?

Cutting To The Quick

Twenty years ago, OPEC had substantial control over the supply side of the oil market. Today, the rise of shale oil has created doubts that OPEC retains the power to influence the market in a lasting way. This question is still to be resolved, though it is true that the cuts have allowed shale producers a new lease of life in terms of spending (up c.50% in 2017) and drilling (the US land rig count is up 120% y-o-y). However, OPEC are making the most concerted attempt for more than a decade to control supply. As the Graph of the Month shows, past quota compliance has been poor, and indeed for a decade this was effectively acknowledged by the lack of a formal quota.

Cutting Down

The difference recently is that OPEC has actually succeeded in cutting to below the level of the quota, despite allowing some members (such as Iran) to avoid formal cuts. The collective reduction has partly been down to outages (notably in Nigeria and Venezuela). However, it also reflects Saudi Arabia shouldering a lion’s share of cuts (c.0.75m bpd or 55%).

Expectations of an extension to cuts boosted oil prices in the run up to the announcement (though after the meeting, prices fell as investors took profits). Higher prices have a range of ramifications for shipping. One consequence is higher fuel prices, increasing shipowners’ costs unless they can pass this on. Previous periods of high fuel costs pushed owners to slow steam. This mitigated the problem, to some extent, but few ships sped up when prices came down. So currently this would be a difficult trick to repeat.

Cut And Run?

The cuts could also affect tanker demand, either via lower crude and product exports (27% of seaborne trade), or lesser import demand if high prices moderate demand growth. So far, price increases have been moderate, and it seems as if the Saudis in particular have been doing their best to curtail domestic oil usage to protect long-haul export customers (more than 18m bpd, of 47%, of crude trade is exported from the Middle East Gulf).

Perhaps most obviously, the OPEC cuts have brought a modicum of more bullish sentiment to oil companies’ E&P investment decisions. This has helped offshore markets a little, notably through a small upturn in tendering and fixing activity for drilling rigs (Clarkson Research’s average rig rate index is up 2% since end-2016). However, there has been little to no effect on rates in related markets such as OSVs, and most would acknowledge the extreme fragility of any improvement.

So, the widely-trailed extension to OPEC production cuts boosted oil prices during May, although it remains to be seen if shale production quickly offsets this. Oil price dynamics have a mixture of positive and negative effects for shipping, but certainly remain crucial given the key role of oil both for shipping and for the wider economy. Have a nice day!


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.


In 2011, Nigerian oil production stood at 2.55m bpd (of which 71% was offshore), accounting for 7.1% of total OPEC oil production (and 40% of West African offshore oil production). Since then, Nigerian oil production has been eroded by exposure to political risk factors and weaker commodity prices, dropping to just 1.54m bpd in 2016. What, then, is the outlook for Nigerian oil production in 2017 and beyond?

A Rose-Tinted Past?

Nigeria has been an oil producing country for almost 60 years and its first producing offshore field came onstream in 1965. In the following decades, Nigerian offshore E&P was focused almost entirely in the shallow waters of the Niger Delta. Even today, there remain 104 active shallow water fields in Nigeria producing via 263 fixed platforms with an average age of 25 years. It was in the late 1990s that Nigerian E&P began moving further from shore, as oil companies sought new reserves to offset decline at mature shallow water fields. Deepwater fields were also less vulnerable to the militant activity plaguing the Delta for much of the 2000s. The first deepwater discovery in Nigeria was Abo, in 1996, which was the first such start-up too, in 2003. As of March 2017, 40 fields in water depths of at least 500m had been found off Nigeria, of which 10 had been brought onstream via a total of seven FPSOs and 253 subsea trees.

A Risky Proposition?

However, were it not for deleterious influences on Nigeria’s upstream sector in the last 10 or so years, deepwater E&P in the country could now be more prevalent still. The foremost difficulty has been the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which was first introduced to the Nigerian Parliament in 2008 and which has yet to be passed. An especially contentious issue is mooted changes to deepwater fiscal terms, which IOCs argue would render deepwater projects (where breakevens tend to fall in the $60-90/bbl range) unviable. An uncertain investment climate has been compounded by court cases arising from alleged improper practices, for example at OPL 245, host to the stalled ZabaZaba project(100,00 bpd). So there have been few deepwater FIDs and just three such field start-ups off Nigeria since 2009 (versus 20 off Angola). There has thus been little deepwater oil production growth to offset onshore or shallow water field decline.

Stability Or Volatility?

Uncertainty about the PIB remains, but in 2016, disruption caused by militants, notably the Niger Delta Avengers, came to the fore: attacks on oil infrastructure saw oil production dip below 1.25m bpd at times in 2016. Moreover, weaker oil prices have hit government finances and so its ability to dampen unrest. Production recovered slightly in Q4 but conditions in the Delta remain febrile. And if oil production does continue to ramp back up to over 2.0m bpd, it could imperil gains in the oil price that followed the OPEC deal (Nigeria is exempt from quotas). If prices cannot climb above $60/bbl, there is little prospect of Nigerian deepwater projects (of which there are 13 with a total oil production capacity of over 0.81m bpd yet to be sanctioned) hitting FID any time soon.

So in the short term, Nigeria could prove a key factor in the global oil price equation. And in the long term, undoubtedly the country has a great deal of deepwater potential; however, before this is likely to be realised, numerous challenges need to be overcome. Nothing is certain.