Tuesday, May 03, 2011

North Sea murmurs, Q1 profits & Bin Laden

To begin with good riddance to Bin Laden! The tragedy of 9/11 still feels like yesterday. I can never forget that morning as a junior reporter watching the BBC when initial reports began trickling in and we were asked to vacate the Canary Wharf building I was at. Miles away across the pond a great tragedy was unfolding – this brings closure to the many who suffered, many known to me.

Being mechanical, there is a near negligible impact on the wider market or crude market despite brave efforts of the popular press to find connections. How markets fluctuated since morning has no direct connection with Bin Laden being killed and instability premium reflected in the price of crude remains untroubled. The threat of Al-Qaeda remains just as real in a geopolitical sense and a Middle Eastern context.

Moving away from today’s news, ratings agency Moody’s noted last week that sharply higher prices for oil and natural gas liquids have boosted business conditions for the independent exploration and production (E&P) industry, and should remain high well into 2012, offsetting persistently weak natural gas prices. In the same week, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell reported appreciable rises in Q1 profits.

ExxonMobil posted quarterly profits of US$10.7 billion, up 69% over the corresponding quarter last year. It also announced a spend of US$7.8 billion over the quarter on developing new energy supplies and said its shareholders had benefited to the tune of US$7 billion in Q1 dividends.

Shell for its part reported quarterly profits of US$6.9 billion on a current cost of supply basis, up 41% on an annualised basis. It said cost saving measures as well as higher oil prices had contributed to its Q1 profitability. Earlier, BP reported first quarter profits of US$5.5 billion, down marginally from the corresponding period last year. Its production over the quarter was also down 11% after asset sales to help pay for the cost of Macondo clean-up.

Finally, unhappy murmurs about rising taxation amid the North Sea oil & gas producers are growing. In his Budget tabled in March, UK Chancellor George Osborne raised supplementary tax on production from 20% to 32%. Reports in the British media this morning suggest the owner of British Gas Centrica says it might shut one of its major gas fields because of increased UK taxes. It is closing three fields in Morecambe Bay for a month of maintenance, may not reopen one of them.

A fortnight ago, Chevron warned of possible "unintended consequences" from the UK Budget decision to raise North Sea taxes. Its Chairman John Watson told the Financial Times, “When you increase taxes every few years, particularly without consulting with industry, there will be unintended consequences of that in terms of where we choose to invest."

In 2010, Chevron received UK government’s permission to drill an exploration well to evaluate a major prospect - the deep-water Lagavulin prospect - is 160 miles north of Shetland Islands. All this comes after a report published on April 8th by Deloitte’s Petroleum Services Group noted that North Sea offshore drilling activity fell 25% over Q1 2011.

The North West Europe Review, which documents drilling and licensing in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS), reveals just five exploration and four appraisal wells were spudded in the UK sector between January 1 and March 31; compared to a total of 12 during the fourth quarter of 2010.

Analysts at Deloitte’s Petroleum Services Group said while the drop cannot be attributed to the recent Budget announcement, which proposed increased tax rates for oil and gas companies, it could set the pattern for activity in the future.

Graham Sadler, managing director of Deloitte’s Petroleum Services Group said, “It is important to clarify that we are talking about a relatively small number of wells that were drilled during the first quarter of the year - the traditionally quieter winter months - so this is not, in itself, an unexpected decrease. The lead-in time on drilling planning cycles can be long – even up to several years - so any impact from the recent changes to fiscal terms are unlikely to be seen until much later in the year.”

“What is clear is that despite the decrease in drilling activity towards the end of last year, and during the first months of 2011, the outlook for exploration and appraisal activity in the North Sea appeared positive. The oil price continued to rise and there were indications that this, combined with earlier UK government tax incentives, was encouraging companies to return to their pre-recession strategies. Since the Budget, a number of companies have announced that they intend to put appraisal and development projects on hold and we will have to wait to see the full effect of this change on North Sea activity levels over the coming months,” he concluded.

Deloitte’s review shows that the Central North Sea has seen the highest level of drilling activity, with the region representing 55% of all exploration and appraisal wells spudded on the UKCS during the first quarter of this year.

It also showed that the price of Brent Crude oil has experienced sustained growth throughout the period, rising 20% between December 2010 and March 2011 to a monthly average of US$114.38. This increase in price is a continuation of a trend that started in 2010, however, so far this year, the rate and pattern of growth has been much more constant with regular increases rather than the rise and dip pattern seen during 2010.

© Gaurav Sharma 2011. Photo: ExxonMobil plaque outside its building, Houston, Texas, USA © Gaurav Sharma, March 2011

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