Archives for posts with tag: offshore markets

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.


As the many Greek players in the shipping industry know well, the legend of Icarus tells us the dangers of flying too high. Merchant vessel earnings eventually found their 2008 heights just as unsustainable, even as some talked of a “new paradigm”. Most will be familiar with the lengthy downturn that has followed. But spare a thought for the offshore markets, now going through their own Icarus moment.

Flying On The Dragon’s Back

As with the expectations of some in the shipping industry that Chinese demand for raw materials would grow indefinitely, the consensus over the 2010-13 period was that oil prices were set to remain above $100/bbl. Oil demand growth seemed firm and supply growth scarce as decline in output from ageing onshore fields undermined growth from new deepwater offshore regions. The offshore sector attracted interest from shipyards in both Korea and China, and amongst traditional shipowners (including some Greek players).

The precipitous fall from grace of the main shipping markets in late 2008 seemed to presage a tough and lengthy downturn. As the graph shows, the ClarkSea Index (an indicator of merchant sector vessel earnings) fell by more than 80% in a matter of weeks, and offshore support vessel (OSV) and rig dayrate indices fell by 50%. Yet, by late 2009, the oil price had bounced back, and offshore units seemed like attractive investment opportunities for diversification away from over-supplied shipping sectors.

On The Right Path?

For some years, offshore investors seemed to have taken the correct turning, as dayrates for rigs and OSVs soared, and by 2013 were close to the heights reached prior to the financial crisis. Meanwhile, the ClarkSea Index remained earthbound, with earnings hampered by a sluggish world economy and phases of newbuilding activity, as government stimulus and low newbuilding prices combined to boost counter-cyclical orders.

For Icarus, the heat of the sun proved to be his undoing. In the case of the offshore markets, the heights they reached were dashed by an unexpected underground source of oil and gas. Few saw coming the game-changing effect that technological change would have on the oil supply-demand balance. Fracking produced 3.8m bpd of additional onshore oil supply from US shale by 2015.

Initially, the effect of this extra supply was hidden, by outages due to political instability in areas such as Libya, Russia, and Iraq. But as oversupply of about 2m bpd became clearer, Saudi Arabia refused to resolve the problem through a unilateral oil output cut.

Down To Earth

Today the offshore markets look to be in an equally or even more challenged position than the major shipping segments. Dayrates for both rigs and OSVs have fallen by 40-50% over the course of the last eighteen months. There is currently little positive sentiment, and many assume that the near future for these offshore sectors could come to resemble the ClarkSea Index’s recent past. But cyclicality, after all, has been a part of these industries for decades. As the best Greek asset players will tell you, the key is to ride a market upturn, but to get out before you get too close to the sun.