Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rig Building Industry Remains in a State of Flux

Post-recession, if one may use the expression, the global rig building industry remains in a state of flux. Often oil market commentators give due attention to global rig counts as a way of gauging the prosperity of oil business. The simple conjecture is that when oil price is high, it makes it worthwhile for oil companies to order jack-ups and semi-submersibles in greater numbers for usage at difficult offshore extraction spots.

The latest overall Baker-Hughes rig count, suggests that in year over year terms, 1282 rigs were in operation in the U.S., 233 fewer than the corresponding week last year. Over a comparable period, Canada saw 495 rigs in operation, up by 69. Internationally, excluding U.S. and Canada, 1024 rigs were in operation, down 54 using December 2009 as a cut-off point.

The stated figures are by no means excellent. However, they are not catastrophic either according to those in the rig building business. The first real rig building boom was seen in the early 1980s. Subsequently, American shipyards as well as their European counterparts lost ground of sorts when demand flattened.

Manufacturing sector analysts partly attribute this to the average age of a jack-up being 20 years, which in truth, most oil firms extend by a further two years. Hence, when the next boom arrived in 2001, Asian players seized the initiative. Of particular significance is the global emergence of two Singapore-based companies – SembCorp and Keppel Offshore & Marine. In between 2002 and 2007, both firms became the world’s leading suppliers of rigs.

As oil prices soared over 2007-08, touching $147 a barrel at one point, both saw their collective order books swell to $8 billion. Apart from being listed companies whose share prices were soaring, direct investment from the Singaporean Government, which has a stake in both, undoubtedly boosted confidence.

Inevitably, the rig count took a beating when the oil price plummeted. Prior to that, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005) took five rigs offline completely and damaged several others. However, that proved to be a different sort of a growth trigger. To begin with, both hurricanes added to order books of rig builders. Furthermore, as the U.S. economy began to take a beating in 2007, drilling companies signed long-term deals to send rigs overseas. It meant the Gulf of Mexico, widely held as the birthplace of offshore drilling, ceased to dictate contract terms benchmarks for drilling equipment.

Emergence of several offshore zones off the coasts of Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent and China along with a partial rebound in crude prices has stabilised rig building activity, admittedly at a level below that of fiscal year 2005-06. Rig builders worldwide had 91 major offshore rig manufacturing contracts in 2005-06, up from less than 10 in 2002-03, according to ODS-Petrodata, a research and analysis firm.

Since then, the recession and fluctuation in oil prices has made building trends forecasting extremely tricky. ODS-Petrodata’s latest research reveals that 577 of 751 mobile offshore drilling units were under contract worldwide with global offshore rig fleet utilisation at 76.8%; the highest level since July 2009. Speaking in November 2009, at the IADC Annual General Meeting in Miami, Florida, Tom Kellock, head of consulting and research, ODS-Petrodata, highlighted some of the difficulties faced by forecasters and rig builders alike.

He noted that over 100 jack-ups were idle at the time, i.e. assembled but not online. Another 60 or more were nearing completion and Kellock felt that most but not all will enter the market. Furthermore, ODS-Petrodata had seen a trend of rising gas prices and falling jack-up utilisation from 2002 into 2008.

“No longer do we have the close correlation between gasoline prices and jack-up activity. And the only obvious explanation and the one I would support is that, this is such a mature market, the prospects are just not there anymore. Analysts and even some contractors say, well, when gas prices get back to $5, $6 or $7, (at U.S pumps/per gallon) it’s all going to be OK. I really have difficulty with that,” Kellock told IADC delegates.

“I think industry needs to move on from shallow-water Gulf of Mexico, quite honestly.…This is not where people are going if they have a choice these days to look for oil and gas,” he concluded. Pretty much the same arguments are being put forward to explain the difficulties faced by North Sea as an offshore extraction zone.

Looking ahead, ODS-Petrodata forecasts a supply of 506 jack-ups worldwide by the end of 2015, assuming no additional new-builds or attrition. Its middle of the road forecast, based on gradually increasing oil and gas prices, puts jack-up demand at 334 rigs by end-2015, while the conservative forecast is set at 282 units.

Depending on the type of rigs being ordered, costs could range from US$200 million to $900 million. Hire-purchase and subletting rates of oil rigs, which were seen stabilising in 2008, are likely to remain stable over the next three years before a possible shortage develops. The silver lining is that offshore opportunities in China and India are thought to be growing rapidly. The industry also hopes that Petrobras’ prospecting and subsequent extraction off the coast of Brazil would provide a much needed boost.

While many players fret over pragmatically tight market forecasts, SembCorp and Keppel Offshore & Marine have shown the way by diversifying heavily since 2005. SembCorp builds as well as repairs shipping liners. Keppel has real estate and infrastructure divisions. Both Singaporean firms have expanded overseas and currently operate not just rig-building yards but also ship-repair yards around the world.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo Courtesy © Cairn Energy Plc

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