Archives for category: Oil Demand

To much fanfare and accompanied by voluminous industry coverage, Mexico recently concluded Round 1.4, the country’s first ever deepwater licensing round. However, Mexico’s shallow waters may yet have a future too: Bay of Campeche reserves remain considerable and indeed, the country’s third shallow water bid round is ongoing. It is therefore worth reviewing the current state of shallow water E&P in Mexico.

Veering Off Course

Mexican offshore oil is currently produced entirely from shallow water fields, as has always been the case. The key sources of Mexican offshore oil have been several large field complexes such as Cantarell and Ku-Maloob-Zaap. As these fields and others came online, the country’s offshore oil output grew with a robust CAGR of 6.6% from 1980 to 2004, reaching a peak of 2.83m bpd in 2004. As the graph implies, four complexes accounted for 93% of this production. Decline set in thereafter at ageing fields (production at Cantarell began at the Akal field in 1979). Pemex – the sole operator of Mexican offshore fields prior to 2014 – tried to halt production decline, but with little success, given budget and technical constraints. Thus by 2013, offshore oil production at the four key field complexes had fallen to 1.31m bpd, accounting for 69% of Mexico’s offshore oil production of 1.90m bpd.

Getting Back On Track

This situation prompted President Peña Nieto’s government to initiate energy sector reforms in 2013, opening up the country’s upstream sector to foreign companies for the first time since 1938. Pemex was granted 83% of Mexican 2P reserves in “Round Zero” in 2014. The first shallow water round, Round 1.1, followed in December 2014. Only two of 14 blocks were awarded though, reportedly due to unfavourable fiscal terms inhibiting bidding by oil companies. The authorities then improved terms before launching Round 1.2 (shallow water), Round 1.3 (onshore) and Round 1.4 in 2015. Round 1.2 was better received than 1.1: as per the inset, 60% of blocks were awarded (75% of the km2 area on offer). One of the round’s victors, Eni, has already been granted permission to drill four appraisal wells on Block 1.

Turning Things Around?

In light of these positives, there are high hopes for Round 2.1, a shallow water round launched in July 2016. Indeed, 10 out of the 15 Round 2.1 blocks are in the prolific Sureste Basin, home to the Cantarell complex. Eight of these ten areas are unexplored, so there is sizeable upside potential, and have been mapped with 3D seismic, so operators could begin drilling promptly. Moreover, the surface area of the blocks in Round 2.1 are twice that of Round 1.1. It should also be noted that according to a 2016 IEA study, Mexico’s shallow waters still account for 29% of the country’s remaining technically recoverable oil resources. Finally, with rates for a high spec jack-up in the GoM assessed at about $85-90,000/day in January 2017, down 45% on three years ago, some oil companies might be tempted to make a move on a round that could offer a relatively low cost means to grow oil reserves and production.

So arguably, Mexican shallow water E&P is on the road again. There are potential hazards of course, such as oil price volatility or Mexico’s relationship with the US. But it is not implausible to think that Mexican shallow water oil production might speed up again in the coming years.


The expansion of European settlement in North America – the pushing westwards of the frontier – has come to be seen as a defining part of American culture, spawning a whole genre of films and books set in the historical “Wild West”. That same pioneering spirit seems to be alive still today, at least in the US Gulf of Mexico (GoM), where 49 ultra-deepwater field discoveries have been made in the last decade.

Once Upon A Time In The Gulf

Offshore E&P in the US GoM began in the 1930s, picking up pace in the 1950s. By the end of 1975, a total of 444 shallow water fields had been discovered in the area and 256 of these had been brought into production. Gas fields predominated, accounting for 75% of discoveries and 31% of start-ups. Early E&P in the area made extensive use of jack-up drilling rigs and lift-boats. Fixed platforms were the favoured development method, with 86% of the 256 start-ups using fixed platforms. Thus were the first pioneering steps taken in exploiting the US GoM.

For A Few Dollars More

However, compelled by the need to find new reserves, oil companies active in the US GoM began pushing outwards, into deeper waters: the first deepwater discovery in the area was made in 1976. The frontier has now moved quite a way onwards since those early days. The average distance to shore of the 129 offshore discoveries in the area since start 2007 is 145km, while 72% (93) of these fields are in water depths of 500m or greater. The focus has also shifted from gas to oil: 58% of the 129 finds were oil fields, including 81% of the 93 deepwater finds. The US GoM has been dubbed one corner of the “Golden Triangle” of deepwater E&P and (supported by high oil prices until 2015) it has accounted for 16% and 19% of deepwater and ultra-deepwater finds globally since 2007. As shown by the graph, this was in spite of a slowdown in the wake of Deepwater Horizon. Floater utilisation dipped to 80% in 2011 but recovered, and a peak of 54 active floaters in the area was reached in January 2015 (26% of the active fleet).

Manifest Destiny?

So US GoM exploration was a major beneficiary of a high oil price. But how might it fare in a potential “lower for longer” price scenario? The outlook for jack-ups is bleak, with utilisation in the area standing at 24% as of December 2016. Simply put, the shallow water GoM is gas prone, and gas fields in the area are generally not competitive with onshore shale gas. At the US GoM (ultra-)deepwater frontier though, things do not look quite as bad as might be expected. On the one hand, over the last two years, floater utilisation has gradually fallen to 70%, as owners have struggled with rig oversupply, and dayrates are severely pressurised. On the other hand, there have been large finds made since 2014, such as Anchor and Power Nap, and wells are underway or planned for potentially major prospects such as Dawn Marie, Warrior, Castle Valley, Hershey, Hendrix, Sphinx and Dover. Many oil companies see the US GoM as a core area, and are prepared to invest to bolster oil reserves, even via drilling of, for example, costly HPHT reservoirs in the Lower Tertiary Wilcox formation.

As in the Wild West, at times things can be tough at offshore frontiers. Rig owners (and others) are experiencing this in the US GoM. But with some oil companies taking a long-term view, the pioneering spirit may not have been snuffed out yet.


The African continent accounts for 16% (490) of active offshore fields and 17% (535) of offshore fields that are either under development or are potential developments globally. It is also home to key offshore exploration frontiers. However, the nature of E&P activity varies widely across the continent, as is clear from analysing the offshore areas into which Africa can be divided: North, South, East and West Africa.

North Africa: Old Fields?

A total of 217 oil or gas fields are located offshore North Africa, of which 112 are in production (95% in shallow waters). In this mature area, offshore oil production is projected to stand at 0.34m bpd in 2016, down 37% on the area’s peak of 0.54m bpd in 1991. Bar the possible restoration of offshore oil production lost in the “Arab Spring”, decline is set to continue. However, North African offshore gas production still has significant growth potential, forecast as it is to grow with a CAGR of 8.4% from 4.29bn cfd in 2016 to stand at 8.86bn cfd in 2025. This projected growth is driven by gas projects such as Zohr Ph.1 ($3.5bn; 1bn cfd) and Ph.2 ($10bn; 7bn cfd). The Zohr field, a frontier find in a water depth of 1,450m in the Levantine Basin, exemplifies the ongoing rise of deepwater E&P in the area.

South Africa: Few Fields

South African offshore production is minute in a global context. The area is home to just 17 offshore fields (only seven active, two having shut down in 2013). Although not without potential, E&P in the area has stalled in the downturn, as IOCs have cut and reprioritised E&P spending.

East Africa: New Fields

Unlike North and West Africa, East Africa has little history of offshore E&P: 88% of the area’s 41 offshore fields were discovered after 2009. The average water depth of these “frontier” finds is 1,570m and 92% are gas fields (with total reserves of more than 168 tcf). Offshore gas production in the area is projected to hit 2.82bn cfd in 2025 (from 0.13bn cfd in 2016) as fields are developed as part of LNG projects such as Coral FLNG Ph.1 ($7bn; 0.433bn cfd). However, further FID slippage at these frontier projects is a risk in the weaker energy price environment.

West Africa: Costly Fields?

West Africa constitutes one corner of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of deepwater E&P: of the 368 active fields in the area, 83% are in shallow waters (in the Gulf of Guinea and Angola) but 43% of 364 potential developments are in depths of more than 500m. The area has major deepwater production growth potential, even though it already accounted for 17% (4.35m bpd) of global offshore oil production in 2015. However, West Africa is a key offshore ‘swing’ region in terms of CAPEX and production: planned FPSO hubs such as MDA (Angola) tend to have high breakevens (c.$70/bbl+), so project FIDs have been scant since 2014. Frontier finds from Ghana up to Mauritania (39 since 2009) could yield more viable production growth though, and exploration in these waters has continued in the downturn.

In conclusion then, the African continent is home to a range of offshore field and project trends. Although there are some similarities across the continent in terms of “frontier” E&P, water depths and other factors, to get a grip on African offshore E&P, it is necessary to take the full range of available data and “drill down” into it.


Global excess oil supply still looks likely to average 0.5m bpd in 2016 – sufficient, it would seem, to stop oil prices rising much above $50/bbl and therefore to forestall a recovery in E&P activity and the offshore markets. On the supply side of the equation, US shale production and Saudi policy tend to be seen as the key “swing factors”. However, an appreciable degree of relief could also come from elsewhere.

Taking A Swing At Production

West Africa, a fairly mature oil producing region, accounted for 6% (5.3m bpd) of global oil supply in 2015, including 17% (4.4m bpd) of world offshore oil production. To put this in context, world oil oversupply in 2015 stood at around 1.7m bpd – 2% of total supply, i.e. 95.8m bpd, to which the US contributed 12.6m bpd (13%) and Saudi Arabia 12.4m bpd (13%). Saudi Arabian production so far in 2016 has been stable, while US shale oil production in May 2016 was down just 8.9% on May 2015, representing a far slower decline than many observers anticipated. It follows, then, that a severe disruption to West African oil production could have significant implications for the global oil supply-demand balance. Such a scenario seems to be unfolding in Nigeria, which in 2015 produced an estimated 2.3m bpd – 43% of West African oil production. In a series of high-profile attacks, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA, a new permutation of the old militant group MEND) have sabotaged pipes and wells in the Niger Delta, crippling onshore and shallow water output. At the same time, only 12,000 bpd of offshore capacity (from the Antan field) is set to start up in 2016, and even fixed platforms further from shore, like “Okan NWP PRP”, have come under attack. As a result, Nigerian oil production reportedly fell to 1.1m bpd in May, and 2016 production is projected to average 1.8m bpd – a production loss equivalent to 28% of oversupply in 2015.

In Full Swing No Longer

Political risk is thus one reason West Africa can be a “swing factor” in oil production; another is project economics, especially over the medium term. Angola, for instance, accounts for 43% of West African offshore oil production and 33% of projects in the region yet to reach EPC. However, most of these are deepwater FPSO hubs with high breakevens. In fact, the last project sanctioned off Angola was the $16bn Kaombo Ph.1 project in April 2014, with a reported breakeven of $74/bbl. Given the dearth of project FIDs since 2014, a paucity of start-ups is expected in 2018-21, which would feed into weaker world oil supply growth.

The Swinging Sixties

In the long term though, West Africa has the potential to act as a swing region for (offshore) oil production in the opposite direction. Given stronger oil prices, c.$60-$80/bbl, prolific projects such as Chissonga (Angola, 150,000 bpd) could be feasible again, while an oil price of c.$90/bbl would unlock the potential of many of the 39 Equatorial Margin frontier fields discovered offshore since 2010. West Africa could thus, in a favourable price environment, make an important contribution to world oil supply growth once again.

Of course, political risk and costly projects make West Africa a challenging region at present. But taking a macro view, that could actually be positive for oil prices. West Africa is clearly one among a range of important swing factors in the world oil supply-demand balance.


The rise of deepwater E&P constituted a boon for the offshore fleet, helping to drive, for example, 180% and 60% increases in the FPSO and floater fleets from 2000 to 2015. However, deepwater development has lagged exploration, and so the offshore sector is fairly exposed to projects with high breakevens – problematic, given the oil price. But could the downturn actually help deepwater E&P in the long term?

Deepwater Exploration

The first deepwater offshore discovery was not made until 1976, by which point 1,018 shallow water fields had been discovered and 350 brought onstream, and it was only in the late-1990s that deepwater E&P really took off. Oil companies began pushing deeper into the US GoM, while the internationalization of the industry in the 2000s saw a spate of deepwater discoveries off West Africa and Brazil. A robust and rising oil price helped sustain rising deepwater E&P until 2015, with India, Australia and East Africa becoming important frontiers too. The average water depth of global offshore field discoveries passed 200m for the first time in 1996, 500m in 2004 and 800m in 2012, and the number of deepwater discoveries averaged 55 per year from 2005 to 2015.

Deepwater Production

However, as the main graph shows, the mean water depth of discoveries rose much faster than did that of start-ups: the former stood at 734m in 2015, the latter at 377m. Indeed, by 2016, out of a total of 998 deepwater finds, just 27% had started up, with deepwater start-ups averaging 19 per year from 2005 to 2015. The divergence was in large part because technological barriers and cost overheads in deepwater production – subsea, SURF and MOPU – are more complex and expensive than in exploration, and efficiency gains seem to have been more limited to date as well. Deepwater project sanctioning was therefore relatively inhibited, and due to limited sanctioning, the backlog of undeveloped deepwater fields grew at a faster rate than that of shallow water fields, as indicated by the inset graph. Thus over time, the overall backlog of potential projects has become more costly and complex. Indeed, some reports suggest oil project average breakevens have risen by c.270% since 2003.

Deepwater Challenges

This is partly why the offshore outlook is challenged at present: deepwater fields have relatively high breakevens (usually $60-$90/bbl) yet also form a major part of oil companies’ portfolios. Some major oil companies have indicated that 2016 E&P spending cuts are to bite deeper off than onshore, where costs are lower (even for shale, in many cases). In January 2016, Chevron decided to axe outright Buckskin, a US GoM project in a water depth of 1,816m with a breakeven of c.$72/bbl. ConocoPhilips, meanwhile, is planning to exit deepwater altogether.

However, in order to make deepwater viable again, many companies are trying instead to cut project costs. Statoil, for example, has reduced the CAPEX of Johan Castberg by 48% and the breakeven by 40%. Some cost savings (in day rates, for instance) are likely to be cyclical; others, such as in subsea fabrication, yielding improved deepwater project economics, are likely to be more lasting. So while exposure to deepwater projects is clearly a challenge given the current oil price, cost cutting now could be to the benefit of deepwater E&P in the long run.


Well, 2015 was really quite a year. Brent opened in January at c.$49/bbl, the price having tumbled in Q4 2014; the subsequent rally, which saw it pass $65/bbl, was cut short, and in December, it fell past $37/bbl. Expectations of a brief correction were confounded, and with E&P cuts biting and oil still falling, offshore seems to be facing a multi-year downturn. But just how does 2015 compare to recent years?

Annus Horribilis

At the end of 2015, Brent stood at around $37/bbl, far below the $60-80/bbl envisaged by many analysts at the close of 2014. Through 2015, various factors conspired to maintain a supply glut and depress the price, including OPEC policy, the resilience of the US shale sector and the softening global economic outlook.

Oil companies reacted to weaker price expectations by cutting E&P budgets and slashing jobs. In the offshore space, oil companies cut E&P spending by around 19% on average. Exploration spending was hit particularly hard, but FIDs at offshore development projects in 2015 were also down approximately 49% y-o-y, as operators were reluctant to commit capital to long lead-time projects. Some offshore areas and fleet segments fared relatively better than others, but 2015 was a pretty bleak year overall.

Turbulent Waters

In terms of offshore field activity, 2015 was the worst year in over a decade. Although some 2015 offshore discoveries like Zohr and Hopkins were notable for their magnitude or fast-track potential, just 96 offshore fields were discovered globally in 2015, down 19% on 2014 and 41% on the 2005-14 average of 162 discoveries per annum.

Meanwhile, only 68 offshore fields started up in 2015, down 41% on both the 114 start-ups of 2014 and the 2005-14 average. In part, this reflected problems pre-dating the fall in the oil price, such as slippage, cost inflation and political risk in countries like Nigeria, Egypt and Brazil. However, due to the paucity of FIDs in 2015, the backlog of fields under development at start 2016 was down roughly 11% y-o-y, even with many planned 2015 field start-ups deferred into 2016 due to slippage. The subsea tree backlog also fell by around 19%, to 301 units.

Challenging Times

The fall-off in offshore field activity compounded developing supply-demand imbalances in the offshore fleet, most notably in the OSV and rig fleets, with an adverse effect on utilization and rates. Thus global rig utilization stood at 73% at end 2015, compared to 87% at end 2014 and 96% at end 2013. Day rates also diminished substantially, with high-spec drillships in the US GoM, for example, commanding $200-275,000/day at end 2015, compared to $600,000/day at the peak of the market cycle. In the OSV sector, falling rig moves and project activity helped depress rates: the North Sea term rate for an AHTS 20,000+ BHP, for instance, averaged $16,800/day, down 52% y-o-y. Moreover, many OSV owners felt compelled to lay up units – a trend still playing out. Offshore newbuild contracting suffered, too with contracting down by 68% on 2014, so that even with delivery delays, the orderbook at start 2016 stood at 1,157 units, down 26% on start 2015.

Troubling Portents

Thus in comparison to the last ten years, and the recent market peak in 2013/14 in particular, 2015 was challenging. The coming year is likely to be a tough one as well, with many energy companies set to make further E&P budget cuts of 20-40% and the oil price seemingly yet to bottom out. The halcyon days of $100+/bbl now seem like a long time ago indeed.

Vietnam has the third largest proven oil reserves in the Asia Pacific region – but much of its existing offshore production is from declining shallow water fields. So the country’s first deepwater discovery, made in October, is a potentially exciting development. Could deepwater E&P activity in Vietnam be set to take off, or will weak oil prices and disputes over territorial waters prove problematic?

Shallow Beginnings

Most of Vietnam’s 0.28m bpd of offshore oil and 0.99bn cfd of offshore gas production is derived from fields in the Nam Con Son and Cuu Long basins, all of which are in less than 200m of water. The Cuu Long basin is perhaps the most successful area off Vietnam as it is home to many large fields, including Bach Ho, Su Tu Vang and Rang Dong. The dominance of shallow fields has skewed development towards fixed platforms. 88% of all active Vietnamese fields are exploited as such. Of these fields, the Bach Ho field accounts for 34 cor 37% of the total found on active fields.

Operators in Vietnam mainly consist of local and regional NOCs as well as IOCs (most commonly via joint operating companies in partnership with Petrovietnam). While significant market reforms have increased foreign investment in Vietnam’s offshore sector, further improvements to its transaction and tax systems could quicken the pace of foreign participation in the future.

Wading Into Deeper Waters

No significant shallow discoveries have been made recently, meaning that there is little to offset Vietnam’s depleting shallow water reserves. This highlights the need to break into deepwater frontiers, which could hold substantial levels of undiscovered hydrocarbons. The VGP-131-TB well, Vietnam’s first discovery in water depths >500m, was drilled in October 2015 by the Vietgazprom JOC, at depths of 1,600m in the Saigon basin. The ultra-deep find could provide momentum for Vietnam’s push into deepwater exploration. However, unlike China, which is able to independently bring deepwater fields like the Lingshui 17-2 online, Vietnam could still need to rely on foreign cooperation to jointly develop such finds in the short term.

Shaky Prospects

Vietnam’s hydrocarbon resources mainly lie in the South China Sea, with the most recent discovery at the southern end. The sea is an area of multiple disputed territorial claims by many countries, including China. This could impede any deep developments, if international partners were to view overlapping sovereignty claims to be an excessive business risk. Perhaps more importantly though, the post-downturn attitude of IOCs is one of cost-consciousness given lacklustre economic conditions. This could skew near-term interest towards safer EOR projects instead of unproven deeper water development in the South China Sea.

Since Vietnam’s historical track record is in shallow waters, even if further deepwater discoveries are forthcoming, then the chance of rapid deepwater developments in the South China Sea is probably going to take time. It is likely to need outside expertise, and the current energy markets may well not be conducive to this. That said, the discovery of Vietnam’s first deepwater field marks a new chapter in the country’s oil and gas story.