Archives for posts with tag: offshore discoveries

While offshore production activity in Myanmar began in 1998, deepwater E&P in the country is arguably still nascent. However, recent deepwater gas discoveries off Myanmar seem to have bolstered the confidence of oil companies sufficiently for them to start planning deepwater drilling campaigns, in spite of weaker energy prices. Could these first steps be indicative of Myanmar’s deepwater E&P potential?

For the full version of this article, please go to Offshore Intelligence Network.

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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.

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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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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.

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As a result of weaker oil prices and E&P spending cuts, offshore exploration is severely challenged. This is reflected in the fact that discoveries are down 47% y-o-y on an annualised basis so far in 2016, global rig utilisation has dropped 22 percentage points to 73% in two years, and 29% of seismic units are inactive. But it is also reflected in a perhaps less prominent element of exploration, namely, block awards.

Block Basics

The basic framework for offshore exploration is provided by blocks. Blocks are areas in which specific oil companies (the licensees) have set E&P rights and obligations with respect to one another and the host country over a specified period. As at April 2016, oil companies hold 10,968 offshore blocks (with an average area of 996 km2) globally. As a general rule, each block will have an operator company, but also several more companies with equity in the block. This allows oil companies to spread the risks of E&P.

Blocks may be awarded to oil companies on a one-off basis but are usually awarded through well-publicised, semi-regular licensing rounds, for example Norway’s ongoing ‘23rd Licensing Round’. Indeed, at present eight offshore rounds are in progress, covering 55 blocks. However, oil company uptake is looking lacklustre and it is expected that, given low levels of interest, a very small percentage of these will be awarded. Just 102 offshore blocks have been awarded so far in 2016, down 38% y-o-y on an annualised basis on a poor 2015. By way of comparison, 1,162 offshore blocks were awarded in 2013.

Acreage Accumulation

In part, this situation reflects reduced E&P spending (exploration budgets are relatively easy to cut). But it also reflects something of a block ‘asset bubble’ in the 2010 to 2014 period, in which 5.99 million km2 of offshore acreage was awarded. Supported by a high and stable oil price, many oil companies stocked up on frontier acreage, engaging in bidding wars for key blocks, driving up prices. For example, in a battle for a 8.5% share in Area 1 off Mozambique in 2012, the block was implicitly valued at c.$14 billion (and East Africa was just one of several frontiers opened up in this period). Oil companies thus acquired a great deal of relatively costly offshore acreage in a short period.

Exploration Excesses

On the plus side, the exploration boom of 2010 to 2014 yielded 765 offshore discoveries, including many large finds that are likely to drive future offshore production growth. However, block oversupply, analogous to that in segments of the offshore fleet, built up. As the two graphs show, the peak of the latest block awards cycle coincided with a 2013 peak in ordering of rigs (117 units) and seismic capacity (104 streamers). Just as there is a supply-demand imbalance in the seismic and rig markets, so too is there in blocks. Oil companies are now sitting on a backlog of unexplored blocks, with fewer incentives to bid for new acreage (though strategic investment in Iran or deepwater Mexico might still happen).

So licensing reflects the broader exploration situation, with block awards and vessel contracting showing similar trends. This being the case, a future rise in block awards could perhaps presage a general recovery in exploration. In gauging exploration sentiment then, upcoming licensing rounds could well be worth monitoring.

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