Archives for posts with tag: exploration

Expectations at the start of the year that 2016 would be a tough one for the oil industry, and in particular for offshore, were on the whole fulfilled. Overall upstream E&P spending globally fell for the second successive year, and was down by in the region of 27% year-on-year in 2016. Cost-cutting has been a key focus, whether that be through pressure on the supply chain, M&A activity, job cuts or other means. OIMT201701

Lower Spending

Offshore spending has been particularly reined back on exploration activity such as seismic survey and exploration drilling, although 2016 saw weakness spread further to areas such as the subsea or mobile production sectors which had initially shown some degree of protection from the downturn. This was not helped by a 32% year-on-year decline in sanctioned offshore project CAPEX in 2016, despite a small number of encouraging project FIDs, such as that for Mad Dog Phase 2 in the Gulf of Mexico in Q4.

Dayrate Weakness

Dayrates and asset values in those offshore sectors with liquid markets showed further signs of weakening in 2016. Clarksons Research’s index of global OSV termcharter rates declined by 27% in 2016, whilst that for drilling rigs was down by 25% year-on-year. Potential for further falls are, in general, limited, given that rates levels in many regions are close to operating expenses. Owners are doing what they can to control the supply side: just 81 offshore orders were recorded in 2016: for context, more than 1,000 offshore vessels were ordered at the height of the 2007 boom. Slippage has also remained evident, either due to mutually agreed delays with shipyards, or owing to owners cancelling orders. Offshore deliveries were 34% lower y-o-y in 2016.

Despite the severe industry downturn, the oil price actually firmed during the year. Brent crude began 2016 at $37/bbl, before briefly dipping below $30/bbl. However, the price ended 2016 at $55/bbl, helped by a slow firming in mid-year, and then more rapid gains after the 30th November announcement of a concerted oil production cut by OPEC countries.

This is clearly positive news for oil companies’ cashflow, and marks the abandoning of Saudi Arabia’s policy of targeting market share by accepting low prices as a means to hinder shale oil production in the US. However, US onshore companies were already feeling more comfortable with slightly improved prices in Q3 2016. Early surveys of intentions for E&P spending suggest that onshore spending in the US could increase by more than 20% in 2017. It is likely that offshore spending will decline further in 2017.

Some Way To Go

Nonetheless, it is important to stress that the offshore sector is far from dead. The expected multi-year downturn is occurring. However, important cost-control and consolidation has taken place. IOCs continue to consider strategic investments such as Coral FLNG or Bonga Lite. This shows that these companies are planning for better times. Decline at legacy fields will help to correct the supply/demand balance. Meanwhile, optimism is building in the renewables and decommissioning markets, with for example, announcements even in the first few days of 2017 that China is to make an RMB2.5 trillion investment in renewables over five years, whilst another North Sea decommissioning project plan has been submitted.

Nevertheless, the supply/demand imbalance in many offshore vessel sectors will take time to recalibrate. However, the weakness of 2016 also put in place many longer term trends which could lay the groundwork for an eventual change in market fortunes.

The Indonesian government has been trying to reinvigorate investment in the country’s upstream oil and gas industry in the last few years. However, tough market conditions persist and political uncertainty remains a challenge. With oil companies seemingly losing interest in acreage offshore Indonesia, could offshore drilling demand in the country be running out of steam?

Ageing Problems

Indonesia is an OPEC member state and accounted for 16% (0.25m bpd) and 23% (3.67bn cfd) of offshore oil and gas production in SE Asia in 2015. However, oil and gas production off Indonesia declined by 4.7% from 2010 to 2015. In part this decline is because there have been few major discoveries to offset dwindling reserves at the country’s mature fields. Recently, operators have also been less willing to conduct additional development drilling on these depleting fields. As the Graph of the Month illustrates, offshore development drilling fell by 27% y-o-y between 2014 and 2015 and exploration drilling has also been subdued, with just two wells drilled in 2015, compared to 24 in 2014. Moreover, exploration has yielded only seven offshore discoveries since 2014, indicating that future development drilling demand could suffer as well.

Losing Interest

Problematic energy market fundamentals aside, political uncertainty has exacerbated the situation. The implementation of controversial Regulation 79/2010 in 2010 ended previous “assume and discharge” rules, meaning that new Production Sharing Contracts (PSCs) could be subject to varying and arbitrary levels of tax previously “dischargeable”. Operators recoiled strongly, denting interest in PSCs, as demonstrated by lacklustre participation in the 2013 Licensing Round. Corrective actions have since been taken, but it created crippling uncertainty in Indonesia’s upstream sector. Looking ahead, low oil prices and a 30% downwards revision to the level of tax oil companies can offset with costs, operators could become even less willing to commit to offshore acreage. Only 6 out of 11 offshore PSCs were awarded in the 2014 tender round. Moreover, Total and Chevron intend to relinquish the Mahakam and East Kalimantan blocks, which will expire in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Of 115 offshore PSCs held as of end 2015, 39 are undergoing termination, and operators might opt to reduce or end drilling activity if they intend not to renew these PSCs.

Under Pressure

It appears operators are losing interest in acreage off Indonesia, which could translate into weaker drilling demand, though the government has been exploring ways to stimulate investment and may eventually broker deals to keep operators committed to major offshore PSCs and capital outlay. Additionally, the country’s NOC, Pertamina, reportedly could assume operatorship of over 50% of upstream acreage. These factors might improve drilling demand in the longer term.

At present however, Indonesia’s offshore sector is clearly challenged: against the backdrop of globally reduced offshore E&P, the country has its own regulatory uncertainties. These factors have led to reduced interest in offshore acreage and subdued drilling activity. Unless the government can intervene to revive operator confidence, the near future also does not look encouraging for drilling demand.


On July 14th 2015, after 20 months of negotiations, Iran and the so-called “P5+1” signed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”: in return for US, EU and UN-mandated sanctions against the country being gradually lifted, Iran has agreed to roll back its nuclear capabilities. Should the deal stick, the door will open to foreign investment once more. What, then, are the possible implications for Iranian offshore oil? Should this deal stick, IOCs will soon be able to operate in Iran once more. What, then, are the possible implications for Iran’s offshore sector?

Political Locks

On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, total Iranian oil production stood at 6.0m bpd, of which around 12% (0.72m bpd) was from 13 offshore fields producing oil, all located in shallow waters and exploited via fixed platforms. The turmoil of the Revolution saw oil production drop to 1.70m bpd in 1980, and in the ensuing Iran-Iraq War, offshore fields like Salman were shut in due to military action. As a result, actual offshore oil production was less than 50% of capacity for most of the 1980s; after the War, production began to recover, peaking at 88% of capacity (0.60m bpd) in 1997. However, as US and then EU economic sanctions on Iran tightened, IOCs were forced to exit the country, depriving Iran’s offshore sector of key investment and technology. Development work slowed and much of Iran’s offshore 2P reserves (30.3bn bbl of oil; 707 tcf of gas) were locked away. At the same time, Iran lacked the resources to implement EOR at brownfields. As a result, the gap between actual and nameplate offshore production was 1.38m bpd by 2014, with production at 0.54m bpd.

Rusty Hinges

Now that sanctions are to be lifted, indications suggest Iran aims to get as much oil production as possible back onstream in 2015/16. Restoring offshore production is likely to require more than just turning the taps though. Iran’s ability to halt decline at brownfields has been curbed, in contrast to other mature producers like the U.A.E. Half of Iran’s active offshore oil fields predate the Revolution (the oldest started up in 1961). Extensive EOR work is likely to be required at such fields – one opportunity for IOCs. Thus, while offshore production is forecast to grow by 7.3% in 2015, this is mostly due to South Pars condensate production ramping up, rather than utilisation of older capacity.

An Alternative Entrance?

Iran is planning an “oil contract roadshow” in London in 2H 2015, with the stated aim of attracting foreign investment in E&P of $185 billion by 2020. However, it is likely that much of the investment will be directed towards stalled onshore projects such as Yadavaran, and to restoring production at mature onshore fields like Azadegan. A spate of onshore discoveries made from 2006 to 2008 may also be prioritised by cash-hungry Iran, particularly those in the Khuzestan province spanning the Iraq border. Some of Iran’s 7 undeveloped offshore fields like Esfandiar (532m bbl) may warrant priority, and the South Pars Oil Layer is scheduled to come onstream in 2018. But even taking into account the Caspian (home to the 2011 Sardar-e Jangal 500m bbl find), offshore oil opportunities for IOCs (and so vessel owners) may be limited at first.

It seems, then, that the offshore oil capacity gap could widen before it narrows. Certainly given its reserves Iran has long-term offshore potential, notwithstanding its troubled history. But observers expecting a quick and big uptick in oil-related offshore activity might need to be patient.


E&P offshore India can be divided into two very distinct species of activity: the one species is typified by shallow water exploration using jack-up drilling rigs, and by multi-phase fixed platform developments; the other species by ultra-deepwater exploration using floaters. The first is concentrated off the west coast, the second off the east coast. But when it comes to CAPEX, which species of activity sits at the top of the food chain in these lean times?

Shallow Water Ancestry

Mumbai High is the ancestor and primordial archetype of the vast majority of field developments offshore India today. Discovered in 1974 in the Mumbai Basin off the country’s west coast, the field was brought onstream in 1976 and was initially exploited via 4 fixed platforms in water depths of around 85m. Subsequent expansions have seen this number rise to 159, with 8 more platforms being fabricated for the Ph.3 redevelopment projects at the field. For the first 30 years of Indian offshore E&P, exploration was focused in the Mumbai Basin while development followed the pattern at Mumbai High. Hence, as of July 2015, 94 fields had been discovered off India’s west coast, all in shallow waters, accounting for 48% of Indian offshore discoveries. Of these 94 fields, 39 are active and 11 are under development. The basin also accounts for 301 active fixed platforms, as well as 13% (18 units) of the jack-up fleet in the Middle East/ISC region. With EOR and redevelopment work underway, the Mumbai Basin remains an important area of offshore activity.

Deepwater Diversification

However, since 2002 the Indian offshore sector has bifurcated to produce a very different species of offshore activity. Exploration campaigns in the east coast Krishna Godavari Basin resulted in 50 new discoveries in water depths >500m (and 51 shallow water finds). Amongst these was KG-DWN-2005/1-A, a field in a water depth of 3,166m, making it the deepest find (in terms of water depth) to date globally. At the height of KG Basin exploration, 12 floaters were active in the country. All this being said, Indian deepwater activity is much less advanced than shallow water E&P: just two deepwater fields are in production and none are currently under development. As a corollary, there are almost no subsea installations offshore India and just one active MOPU.

An Evolutionary Hiatus?

There are, however, 25 ‘probable’ deepwater field developments, including some potentially prolific fields. However, development seems to have been inhibited by the example of KG-D6 (Dhirubhai 1&3), a deepwater (850m) gas field which has shown precipitous production decline. India’s offshore sector is also dominated by indigenous companies like the government-controlled ONGC, who seemingly lack the deepwater technological or operational expertise of many IOCs. At the same time, there are still 88 potential shallow water fields, as well as plenty of scope for EOR at older fields – the sort of projects where Indian oil companies have substantial experience.

Opening up of the upstream sector, as is being attempted in Mexico, might be one means to adapt to the challenges of the “P” of deepwater E&P in India. However, this does not appear to be on the cards for the immediate future. So for the time being, given the hostile conditions of the weaker oil price environment, shallow water activity seems set to thrive best.


Over the hill; past its peak; long in the tooth: like a worn-out old racehorse, the North Sea E&P sector is sometimes discussed in disparaging terms. In recent years however, it has been making something of a comeback, gaining ground when it comes to exploration and at least holding steady-ish when it comes to production. The question is, can this pace be sustained in the current oil price environment?

Saddling Up

The UK and Norway have long been the front-runners when it comes to offshore activity in the North Sea. In the 1970s, an average of 187 offshore wells were spudded per year in UK and Norwegian waters. As the graph shows, in the years 1970-76, more than 50% of these were exploration wells. Production was low (0.85m boepd in 1975), as few of the discoveries made since the first find in 1965 had been developed. But then in 1976, Brent started up, with Ekofisk following in 1977. During the course of bringing these and other large fields onstream, appraisal and development drilling raced ahead of exploration; from 1990, the number of exploration wells drilled each year began falling too. Field operators were now focusing on production over exploration. The two countries’ offshore production peaked in 2002 at 8.64m boepd from 337 fields. This year was also the nadir for exploration drilling: of 503 wells spudded, just 32 (6.4%) were exploration wells.

Second Wind

Oil companies therefore found total production falling just as reserves were being replaced at the slowest rate since North Sea exploration began. The more prudent then applied the spur to exploration once more, even as they tried to stop production decline using EOR. Exploration in the years 2003-14 in the central North Sea met with some notable successes, like the giant Johan Sverdrup discovery in 2010, with 2P reserves of 2.2bn bbl oil and 394bn cf gas. Operators also began venturing into the mostly unexplored Barents Sea and west of Shetlands waters. Hence, in 2014, 27% of wells spudded in UK or Norwegian waters were for exploration, a share similar to the late 1980s. Production, meanwhile, fell by only 0.8% y-o-y, versus the average y-o-y decline over 2002-14 of 3.9%.

The Final Furlong?

The area’s offshore sector was thus moving at a relatively good pace. However, 2014 exploration campaigns and most incipient development projects were conceived in a more robust oil price environment than the present: E&P economics in frontier areas like the Barents Sea are highly uncertain while the oil price is less than $80/bbl. Perhaps then, with oil company spending cuts, the recovery in exploration will be stopped in its tracks and production decline may resume. On the other hand, some smaller operators are taking advantage of low rig and OSV day rates to increase exploration. Falling EPC costs could also help to reduce development project breakevens, flogging North Sea E&P onwards once more. And if the oil price were to return to $100/bbl+, then there is the potential for further upside.

So there you have it. The weaker oil price has made some oil companies pull on the reins, but there is still potential for the second burst of North Sea E&P activity to run on, in the right conditions. The area may no longer be the fiery colt of offshore E&P, but it probably has some way to run yet before being put out to pasture.


Since 1970, 179 offshore gas fields have been discovered in the Browse and Carnarvon Basins of Australia’s Northwest Shelf. From around 2005, as offshore technology advanced and Asian gas demand rose, operators hatched plans of monstrous magnitudes for these fields. However, in an environment of low oil prices and E&P spending cuts, some of these offshore behemoths now look more endangered.

Taming The Seas

The Australian NW Shelf accounts for about 15% of offshore projects globally with CAPEX of over $5bn. NW Shelf projects tend to be capital intensive, in part because they are remote, with an average distance to shore of 161km. Development thus entails long export pipelines (889km for Ichthys, for example) to onshore LNG plants, or as yet unproven FLNG technology. CAPEX in turn contributes to high project breakeven prices, as does OPEX: for example, OSVs make longer trips for far-from-shore projects. Until recently, high project breakevens stymied final investment decisions (FIDs). However, due in part to cost-saving subsea and cryo-technology, in 2007, Chevron approved Greater Gorgon, a $37bn multi-field project with reserves of 40 tcf. Subsequently, 11 more projects received positive FIDS, including Prelude ($12bn), Pluto ($16bn) and Wheatstone ($29bn).

Teething Problems

Since 2007, 4 of these projects have come onstream and the other 8 are due to begin ramping up 2015-17. However, these 12 projects have not been without their problems. Greater Gorgon, for instance, was first scheduled to start up in 2H 2014, rather than 2H 2015; CAPEX has risen by 49% to $55bn. Meanwhile projects yet to be sanctioned have seen FIDs delayed by operators trying to cut costs. Scarborough, a mooted $19bn FLNG development 286km from shore (which has now been delayed again due to the fall in the oil price) underwent multiple FEED studies following the 2010 pre-FEED. Before circumstances changed, a 2019 start-up briefly looked likely.

Monsters Have Feelings Too

NW Shelf gas projects are thought to be some of the more sensitive globally to the change in the oil price since mid-2014. Greater Gorgon’s breakeven is relatively low for the area, but still stands at $67/boe. Projects further from shore are thought to have higher breakevens, in the $80-100/boe range. No Australian project more than 250km from shore has passed FID, though 50% of those yet to reach EPC exceed this distance, casting doubts on their viability. Since the fall in the oil price, Scarborough’s FID has been postponed to 2017/18; start-up before 2023 is considered unlikely. Other projects facing fresh feasibility concerns include Equus, Browse, Greater Sunrise, Crux and Cash Maple. Indeed, the average slippage for such projects already stands at 40 months. Many may not now come onstream before 2023 and a paucity of start-ups is anticipated in the mid-term, 2018-22, due to delayed FIDs 2014-17.

Clearly, then, remote Australian mega-projects are subject to high costs and breakevens, which increases slippage risk. That being said, the long-term fundamentals of energy-hungry non-OECD economies still suggest remaining NW Shelf gas will be viable eventually. These mammoth projects are not extinct yet.


The AHTS spot market in the North Sea is notable for the speed in which rates can shift, responding rapidly to supply and demand pressures. In 2014 alone the spot charter rate for an AHTS 18,000+ bhp fluctuated dramatically from a high of £170,165/day in August to a low of £5,819/day in the last week of the year.

Blame It On The Weatherman

Rig moves are the key AHTS demand driver in the North Sea. Pressures that affect the volume of these, along with the supply of units in the North Sea, dictate the number of available units, which in turn determine AHTS spot fixtures rates.

The largest peak in spot rates in the last three years occurred in August and September 2014. It was the result of a temporary removal of some North Sea units for work on exploration campaigns in the Russian Arctic. This caused a drop in the supply of vessels, that was eventually compounded by numerous rig moves, dropping availability and lifting spot rates.

Conversely, during December, a short three months after the September peak, AHTS spot rates in the region had fallen below £10,000/day for the first time since 2010. During the month, North West Europe was battered by a large weather depression resulting in strong winds and high seas, suspending many rig moves and forcing AHTSs to compete with PSVs for supply duty charters, bringing down the spot rates for both AHTSs and PSVs.


The price of Brent crude has fallen over 50% since June 2014 to below $50/barrel at the time of writing. As oil companies seek to rebalance their budgets in a new oil price world, exploration budgets have been cut. One of the ways in which drill rigs are utilised is the drilling of exploration and appraisal wells, demand for which has suffered in Q4 2014, negatively impacting AHTS demand in this period.

The drop in oil price has also damaged hope that exploration campaigns in expensive, harsh, Arctic environments will take place. Previously, these campaigns have taken vessels from the North Sea fleet, protecting the market from oversupply. Notably, Statoil has handed back three licenses offshore Greenland and announced that it will slow Arctic and Barents exploration to control CAPEX.

Oversupply in the North Sea can be demonstrated by the increase in the average number of vessels available. This rose steadily in 2012 and 2013, and by 39% in 2014 to an average of 13.1 vessels. This increase in supply has contributed to poorly performing spot rates in most of 2014, aside from the late summer spike. Increasing levels of supply and weaker demand indicators have forced some vessel owners to lay-up more ships in an effort to prevent oversupply impacting spot rates further, even laying-up units built as recently as 2014.

C’est La Vie

Clearly the volatile North Sea AHTS market is highly susceptible to short term demand pressures such as the weather and the whim of oil companies that dictate when rig moves occur. However, there are longer-term supply and demand forces at work, which although often obscured by dramatic short-term changes, can influence spot rates just as strongly.