Archives for posts with tag: Oil

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.


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 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.


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.


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.


Over the course of the last 20 years, oil and gas companies have cultivated a vast metallic forest beneath the world’s oceans, consisting now of some 5,800 installed subsea trees. The growth of this artificial arboretum has supported an array of related offshore fabrication, installation and IMR industries. But how to assess the outlook for this complex sector? Well, one key metric is the subsea tree backlog…

Into The Woods

The tree ‘backlog’ is the ‘orderbook’ of subsea trees. It is constituted by trees ordered by oil companies from subsea fabricators that have not yet been installed. A tree itself is the tall array of valves that caps a well; unlike ‘dry’ trees, subsea or ‘wet’ trees are located on the seabed, rather than on fixed platforms or MOPUs. While fields can host various subsea structure types, trees are at the core of nearly all subsea developments. Hence, the backlog is a key proxy for subsea CAPEX and subsea construction vessel demand. The real boom for the subsea sector came in period of high oil prices after 2009, as innovation in the subsea sector facilitated deepwater frontier projects in West Africa, Brazil and the US GoM. The backlog grew from 647 units in Q3 2009 to a peak of 1,158 at start Q4 2014 – an increase of 79%. At this point a number of large projects utilising subsea trees had recently reached the EPC stage, including TEN (Ghana, $4.9bn, 36 trees), Egina (Nigeria, $15bn, 44 trees) and Buzios (Brazil, $2.6bn, 20 trees). The charter rate for a large (250t crane) MSV in the North Sea, meanwhile, stood at around $52-59,000/day.

Cut Down To Size

However, like other offshore sectors, the subsea sector has been adversely affected by weaker oil prices (and the paralysis at Petrobras). Initially the backlog provided a degree of insulation for fabricators and installation contractors. The backlog is eroding though, having fallen y-o-y in each of the last nine quarters by between 1% and 14%. As at start Q2 2016, it stood at 876 units, down 24% on the Q4 2013 peak. Installers have been working through the backlog while new awards have dwindled (only 59 trees have been contracted in 2016 as at start May) due to a dearth of project FIDs. True, the subsea sector has held up better than the rig or OSV sectors (in part due to IMR demand, not captured by the backlog size) but North Sea dayrates for a 250t MSV have fallen by 34% since Q2 2014, to $32-43,000/day at start May 2016.

New Spring?

Could things in subsea get as challenging as in the rig and OSV sectors? Perhaps, but that depends on the timing of the recovery in offshore project FIDs. Besides, the downturn is not all bad for subsea – in the long run. In order to reduce field development costs, companies are increasingly relying on subsea efficiency gains – Statoil’s subsea standardisation drive is a notable example of this. As costs at subsea projects fall, more such projects are likely to receive FIDs. New tree awards are expected to recover to around 300 per annum by the end of the decade.

So subsea seems to be becoming more challenged, as reflected in the falling subsea tree backlog. But subsea is likely to play a key part in the recovery too. The arrival of new awards, followed by a sustained increase in backlog, will be a good indicator of when the offshore market is out of the woods.