The North Sea Dilemma: Continue to Invest or Start Decommissioning?

The North Sea Dilemma: Continue to Invest or Start Decommissioning?
Consultant Roland Berger discusses whether cost cutting today is removing the ability of oilfield services companies to capitalize on the opportunities of tomorrow?

This time last year, oil prices were at $95 per barrel and had been averaging around that level since 2011. Twelve months on, the factors that caused the initial price drop – such as unconventional reserves in North America and OPEC's unwillingness to reduce production – show no signs of abating and have been re-enforced or supplanted by new ones as China's demand slows and sanctions are lifted in Iran.

As a consequence, the price of oil dropped again in September to $48 per barrel and it is clear that what was originally thought to be a short-term phenomenon is looking increasingly more medium, if not, long term.

In this environment, capital expenditure budgets for exploration have been significantly scaled back and North Sea operators are facing an increasingly pressing dilemma. The economic dilemma facing operators – the high proportion of ageing assets, whose lifespans have already been extended many years beyond what was originally intended, compounded by the complexity of infrastructure required to extract oil in the North Sea – is further complicating an already-difficult question for operators: whether to continue to invest in life extension or to begin the painful process of decommissioning?

With low oil prices now showing no sign of being a short-term phenomenon, the 'wait and see' approach of many operators to asset life extension or decommissioning is no longer tenable.

Figure 1. UK Oil & Gas Comparison of the Annual Forecast Decommissioning Expenditure on the UKCS (2011-2014 surveys)
Figure 1. UK Oil & Gas Comparison of the Annual Forecast Decommissioning Expenditure on the UKCS(2011-2014 surveys)
Oil & Gas UK's decommissioning forecast for total expenditure and year of realization has been increased and postponed every year for the last three years as operators delay decommissioning work. The longer-term outlook of low oil prices will make the actual realization of decommissioning expenditure more likely than ever before. Source: Oil & Gas UK

Expenditure on decommissioning in the North Sea region is hitting record levels with GBP 46 billon forecast to be spent between now and 2040. High-profile projects today include the Brent Murchison fields, with several more in the pipeline expected over the coming years such as Brae and Miller. Strict UK regulation means that the cost of such decommissioning is very high.

The reactive strategies of many oilfield services companies have mostly reflected the short-term low oil price hypothesis, therefore not taking into account the opportunities of soon to be realized alternative revenue streams such as decommissioning and wind power. Oilfield services firms have responded with wide-ranging cost cutting programs, most recently Technip and Wood Group. This cost reduction has been welcomed by the investor community as necessary and an opportunity to 'cut the fat' in the industry and hasten the generational shift change.

However, oilfield services companies must come to terms with a long-term low oil price scenario and be careful that they make cuts in the right places and do not find themselves in a position where they are unable to capitalize on the opportunities of tomorrow thanks to the cost cutting of today.

In the past, many oilfield services companies viewed decommissioning as a challenge rather than an opportunity. There are major technical and cost challenges beyond their E&P skillset, complex regulation and major environmental concerns to name a few, but, oilfield services companies involved in the oil supply chain need to find solutions for the economic, technological and strategic challenges of tomorrow.

Figure 2. OFS workforce 2014 in Upstream E&P vs. OFS workforce in 2020.
Figure 2. OFS workforce 2014 in Upstream E&P vs. OFS workforce in 2020.
Oilfield services companies can benefit from a natural incumbency advantage but only if they maintain the right elements of the workforce. By keeping the right skills and actively developing necessary new skills, expertise and knowledge, oilfield services companies can capitalize on decommissioning opportunities over the coming years in the North Sea and potentially beyond as skills are eventually exported to the ageing global asset base. Source: Roland Berger


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jay cresswell  |  October 16, 2015
Well said Jim! As you will know, I highlighted the diversification issue in the Offshore Europe edition of Energy and, in the current edition, focused on Amec Foster Wheelers very specific efforts in the late-life into decom sphere JC
Jim Rae  |  October 12, 2015
Strict Regulation is being touted here as an increased cost factor. Sorry chaps, Operators were well aware of these conditions when they took out their licences and then got development sanction subsequently for field development and many years thereafter of fruitful bounty. If they are unable/unwilling to manage the entire life-cycle of their assets properly, nor make proper decommissioning estimate provision on an annual basis, like most mature sectors, then they are going to be in trouble!! Time everyone stopped trying to blame the Regulators and looked at their own short-termism as the main reason decommissioning costs are so much higher than they estimated!! Reality hurts. We need to start planning for field late-life much more honestly or there will be tears. Get it right - the simplest and cheapest way to decommission is to comply as quickly and effectively with the regulatory framework - dont blame the regulators because Operators stick their hrads in the sand and live in La La Land until it is virtually too late. Wake up and smell the coffee. This was all possible to plan for years ago!!

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