Archives for category: Oil Demand

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 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.


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.