Archives for posts with tag: gas fields

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.

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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.

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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.

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