Showing posts with label Shetland Islands. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shetland Islands. Show all posts

Friday, October 11, 2013

North Sea & the 'crude' mood in Aberdeen

The Oilholic spent the wee hours of this morning counting the number of North Sea operational support ships docked in Aberdeen Harbour. Interestingly enough, of the nine in the harbour, six were on the Norwegian ships register.

Whether you examine offshore oil & gas activity in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea or the British sector, there is a sense here that the industry is enjoying something of a mini revival if not a full blown renaissance. As production peaked in the late 1990s, empirical evidence that oil majors had begun looking elsewhere for better yields started emerging. Some even openly claimed they’d given up.

Over a decade later, with new extraction techniques and enhanced hydrocarbon recovery mechanisms in vogue – a different set of players have arrived in town from Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA) to Austria's OMV, from Canada's Talisman Energy to China's Sinopec. Oil recovery from mature fields is now the talk of the town.

Even the old hands at BP, Shell and Statoil – who have divested portions of their North Sea holdings – seem to be optimistic. The reason can be found in the three figure price of Brent! Most commentators the Oilholic has spoken to here, including energy economists, taxation experts, financiers and one roughneck [with 27 years of experience under his belt] are firmly of the view that a US$100 per barrel price or above supports the current level of investment in mature fields.

One contact remarks that the ongoing prospection and work on mature fields can even take an oil price dip to around $90-level. "However, anything below that would make a few project directors nervous. Nonetheless, the connect with between Brent price fluctuation and long term planning is not as linear as is the case between investment in Canadian oil sands projects and the Western Canadian Select (WSC) price."      

To put some context, the WSC was trading at a $30 per barrel discount to the WTI last time yours truly checked. Concurrently, Brent's premium to the WTI, though well below historic highs, is just shy of $10 per barrel. Another contact, who retains faith in the revival of the North Sea hypothesis, says it also bottles down to the UK's growing demand for natural gas.

"It's what'll keep West of Shetland prospection hot. Furthermore, and despite concern about capacity constraints, sound infrastructural support is there in the shape of the West of Shetland Pipeline (WOSP) which transports natural gas from three offshore fields in the area to Sullom Voe Terminal [operated by BP]."

While further hydrocarbon discoveries have been made atop what's already onstream, they are not yet in the process of being developed. That's partially down to prohibitive costs and partially down to concerns about WOSP's capacity. However, that's not dampening the enthusiasm in Aberdeen.

Five years ago, many predicted a rig and infrastructure decommissioning bonanza to be a revenue generator and become a thriving industry itself. "But enhanced oil recovery schemes keep pushing this 'bonanza' back for another day. This in itself bears testimony to what's afoot here," says one contact.

UK Chancellor George Osborne also appears to be listening. In his budget speech on March 20, he said that the government would enter into contracts with companies in the sector to provide "certainty" over tax relief measures. That has certainly cheered industry players in Aberdeen as well the lobby group Oil & Gas UK.

"The move by the Chancellor gives companies the certainty they need over the tax treatment of decommissioning. At no cost to the government, it will speed up asset sales and free up capital for companies to use for investment, extending the productive life of the UK Continental Shelf," a spokesperson says, echoing what many here have opined.

Osborne's budget speech also had one 'non-crude' bit of good news for the region. The Chancellor revealed that one of the two bidders for the UK government's £1 billion support programme for Carbon Capture and Storage (CC&S) is the Peterhead Project here in Aberdeenshire. Overall, the industry sounds optimistic, just don't mention the 'R-word'. Scotland is due to hold a referendum on September 18, 2014 on whether it wants to be independent or remain part of the United Kingdom.

Hardly any contact in a position of authority wants to express his/her opinion on record with the description of political 'hot potato' attributed to the referendum issue by many. The response perhaps is understandable. It's an issue that is dividing colleagues and workforces throughout the length and breadth of Scotland.

General consensus among commentators seems to be that the industry would be better off in a 'United' Kingdom. However, even it were to become a 'Disunited' Kingdom come September 2014, industry veterans believe the global nature of the oil & gas business and the craving for hydrocarbons would imply that the sector itself need not be spooked too much about the result. National opinion polls suggest that most Scots currently prefer a United Kingdom, but also that a huge swathe of the population is as yet undecided and could be swayed either way.

In a bid to conduct an unscientific yet spirited opinion poll of unknown people since known ones were unwilling, the Oilholic quizzed three taxi drivers around town and four bus drivers at Union Square. Result – two were in the 'Yes to independence' camp, four were in the 'No' camp and one said he'd just about had enough of the 'ruddy question' being everywhere from newspapers to radio talk shows, to a stranger like yours truly asking him and that he couldn't give a damn!

Moving away from the politics and the projects to the crude oil price itself, where black gold has had quite a fortnight in the wake of a US political stalemate with regard to the country's debt ceiling. Nervousness about the shenanigans on Capitol Hill and the highest level of US crude oil inventories in a while have pushed WTI’s discount to Brent to its widest in nearly three months by this blogger's estimate.

Should the unthinkable happen and the political stalemate over the US debt ceiling not get resolved, it is the Oilholic's considered viewpoint that Brent is likely to receive much more support at $100-level than the WTI, should bearish trends grip the global commodities market. This blogger has maintained for a while that the WTI price still includes undue froth in any case, thereby making it much more vulnerable to bearish sentiment. 

Just one final footnote, before calling it a day and sampling something brewed in Scotland – according to a recent note put out by the Worldwatch Institute, the global commodity 'supercycle' slowed down in 2012. In its latest Vital Signs Online trends report, the institute noted that global commodity prices dropped by 6% in 2012, a marked change from the dizzying growth during the commodities supercycle of 2002-12, when prices surged an average of 9.5% per annum, or 150% over the stated 10-year period.

Worldwatch Institute says that during the supercycle, the financial sector took advantage of the changing landscape, and the commodities market went from being "little more than a banking service as an input to trading" to a full-fledged asset class; an event that some would choose to describe as "assetization of commodities" and that most certainly includes black gold. Supercycle or not, there is no disguising the fact that large investment banks participate in both financial as well as commercial aspects of commodities trading (and will continue to do so).

Worldwatch Institute notes that at the turn of the century, total commodity assets under management came to just over $10 billion. By 2008 that number had increased to $160 billion, although $57 billion of that left the market that year during the global financial crisis. The decline was short-lived, however, and by the end of the third quarter in 2012, the total commodity assets under management had reached a staggering $439 billion.

Oil averaged $105 per barrel last year and a slowdown in overall commodity price growth was indeed notable, but Worldwatch Institute says it is still not clear if the so-called supercycle is completely over. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo 1: North Sea support ships in Aberdeen Harbour. Photo 2: City Plaque near ferry terminal, Aberdeen, Scotland © Gaurav Sharma, October 2013.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

North Sea’s glory days have long gone

Oil extracted from North Sea once made UK the world’s six-biggest producer of oil and natural gas. However, the tide turned after 1999 when production peaked at 4.5 million barrels per day. Estimates suggest that production is down nearly 40% since then.

At end of 2006 and 2007, UK production had dropped to 2.9 million and 2.8 million barrels per day respectively, indicative of a terminal decline. Geologists are not yet suggesting the North Sea oil has nearly run out. Government and private sector research indicates there is still about 15 to 25 billion barrels beneath the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). However, all the “easy oil”, to be read as easier to extract, has nearly dwindled.

Most new discoveries contain less than 50 million barrels; minuscule amount by global standards. Harder to extract oil requires additional investment as production becomes more and more capital intensive. Research by Oil and Gas UK (OGUK) suggests that there are already signs of a sharp slowdown in exploration and appraisal drilling activity. In its Economic Report (2009), it noted that the first quarter of 2009 saw a 78% drop in the number of exploration wells drilled.

OGUK expects investment to fall significantly and fears it could even drop below £3 billion in 2010. Historic data suggests investment stood at £4.9 billion in 2007. Furthermore, a fall in the value of the pound sterling against the US dollar and relatively smaller discoveries per exploratory project would imply that 2010 would result in investment of a comparable level yielding less than one third of the oil did in 2001.

OGUK is not shying away from admitting things are not what they used to be. To its credit, the lobby group meaningfully acknowledges UK’s internal “Peak Oil” argument. It believes the surge in oil price during 2007 and 2008 masked a steady decline in the competitiveness of UKCS extraction.

Pure economics also comes into the picture. Quite frankly, despite a decline in relative value of the pound sterling, it is clear that UK oil and gas exploration projects will lose out to other regions around the world which offer more substantial investment opportunities on better terms. For instance, Cairn Energy (LSE: CNE) made its mark in the North Sea, but is banking its future strategy on South Asia (India and Bangladesh), Tunisia and Greenland.

UKCS' decline is unlikely to be stemmed unless the government provides tax breaks to ensure some semblance of competitiveness, according to business lobby groups. Even at the time of the oil price touching dizzy heights of US$147 per barrel many were concerned. I recollect a conversation I had at a House of Commons event early in 2008 with Geoff Runcie, Chief Executive, Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC) and Howard Archer, chief UK economist, IHS Global Insight.

Runcie believed that despite repeated warnings of escalating oil extraction costs, the UK oil industry had to contend with two major tax increases in recent years. He said that investment in real terms had fallen by £1 billion between the first quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2008, despite rising commodity prices.

Archer noted that giving tax breaks to oil companies at a time when crude oil price was at $147 per barrel, household energy prices were rising and oil companies were booking record profits, was politically suicidal for any government. The financial tsunami that followed over 2008-09 and the current precarious state of the UK public purse currently makes allowance for such tax breaks unthinkable.

Furthermore, energy economists believe North Sea investment was hit both ways. High oil price masked under-investment and made tax breaks unpalatable for most of 2007-08. Subsequently, a greater decline in activity was an obvious consequence of a lower oil price which fell to $34 per barrel in December 2008 with no tax break in sight for entirely different reasons.

Despite evidence to the contrary, fall in oil production and two of Scotland’s largest banks being owned by the UK taxpayer, the Scottish National Party (SNP) still bases its case for Scottish Independence on North Sea oil deposits, majority of which lie in what could geographically be described as Scottish waters. The figures may add up today, but do not stand up to scrutiny for much longer. SNP does find common ground with oilmen and lobbyists who wish to see more exploratory activity west of Shetland Islands. Even before significant prospecting, geologists believe it could hold up to 4 billion barrels of oil.

However, commencing projects in the area is not easy. A sea bed with prospective hydrocarbons stored at high pressures, inhospitable climate and a lack of infrastructure temper enthusiasm as easier exploration options are available globally. Total has got one gas project going which was commenced in 2007. It believes the West of Shetland area represents about 17% of UK’s remaining oil and gas resource base and could contribute up to 6% of the country's gas requirements by 2015.

If even a new exploratory zone represents 17% of what is left, one wonders how much actually does remain. Shetland Islands Council EDU sees the inevitable but not immediate decline. West Shetland will not prevent the North Sea’s decline. Furthermore, several government papers between 2003 and 2007 recognise the problem. However, in my opinion none of the papers seem to provide any concrete contingency plans when and if, as expected, UKCS production falls to a third of its 1999 peak level sometime between 2020 and 2030.

Concurrently, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data after the second quarter of 2007 suggests the UK is fast becoming a net importer of crude for the first time in decades. Glory days have long, off-shore industry faces tough challenges, government finances are precarious and no one is in denial. In short, it’s a jolly rotten mess, albeit one which has been in the pipeline for some time.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo Courtesy © BP Plc, Andrew Rig, N. Sea

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