N. Sea revenues dive to lowest on record since 1988 as investment teeters on verge of collapse amid economic carnage of crude oil price plunge


Malcolm Webb, Chief Executive, Oil and Gas UK
Malcolm Webb, Chief Executive, Oil and Gas UK

The extent of the damage wreaked on the N. Sea oil and gas industry by the precipitous 50% fall in crude oil prices last year is starkly exposed in a new industry report published today.

 The 2015 Activity Survey published by Oil and Gas UK paints a bleak picture of how rising costs, taxes and inadequate regulation have taken their toll on the UK industry’s international competitiveness. It reveals that:

  • Falling crude oil prices meant that revenues fell to just over £24 billion for the year – the lowest since 1998.
  • Operating expenditure rose by almost 8% to £9.6 billion in 2014 and, on a unit of production basis, reached a record high of £18.50/boe.
  • This resulted in a negative cash-flow of £5.3 billion for the N. Sea basin – the worst since the 1970s.
  • Annual investment in sanctioned projects is forecast to decline rapidly – and could collapse to £2.5 billion by 2018.  
  • Equally alarming is the three-year outlook (2015-2017)  for projects yet to get company sanction, in which planned investment has fallen from £8.5 billion in last year’s survey to just £3.5 billion in current forecasts. 
  • Exploration for oil and gas in the UK last year was significantly worse than anticipated with only 14 wells drilled out of the expected 25.  This continues the downward trend of recent years with no improvement in sight. Between eight and 13 exploration wells are forecast for this year as price uncertainty adds to the existing difficulty explorers still have in accessing capital. 

In short, the N. Sea basin is not generating new projects and as a result, there is very little fresh investment.

But the association’s 2015 Activity Survey highlights the urgency with which measures are needed to secure new investment and address the collapse in exploration, if the UK is to maximise economic recovery of its still significant untapped resources.

Based on the latest data supplied by all exploration and production companies operating in the UK, the survey provides a uniquely well-informed insight into the opportunities and potential of this vital sector of the economy.

The survey reports that 6.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe) are sanctioned or under development. There are another 3.7 billion boe of potential investment opportunities, although companies indicated at the end of 2014 that less than two billion boe of those were likely to be developed.

Malcolm Webb, Chief Executive, Oil & Gas UK, said: “This year’s survey paints a bleak picture but also identifies this region’s potential – emphasising the importance of government and industry now putting the right measures in place to secure its long-term future.

“This is crucial not only for the energy security that domestic oil and gas production provides but also for the hundreds of thousands of highly skilled jobs, advanced technology and billions of pounds of exports which the industry underpins.

“Without sustained investment in new and existing fields, critical infrastructure will disappear, taking with it important North Sea hubs, effectively sterilising areas of the basin and leaving oil and gas in the ground.” 

The report also shows that cost over-runs and project slippage on several large projects pushed capital investment in 2014 beyond expectations to £14.8 billion, with half spent on just 12 fields. As these large projects move from the investment phase into production there is very little new investment lined up to replace them; indeed, it is expected to fall in 2015 by around one third to £9.5 – from £11.3 billion.

Webb added: “Even at $110-barrel, the ability of the industry to realise the full potential of the UK’s oil and gas resource was hamstrung by escalating costs, an unsustainably heavy tax burden and inappropriate regulation.  

“At current oil prices, we now see the consequences only too clearly. The industry recognises that its cost base is unsustainable. Cost and efficiency improvements of up to 40% are required to give the N. Sea a viable future.

This adjustment is now underway but cost control alone is not the answer.”

Meanwhile, pay talks are set to resume tomorrow (Wed) in Aberdeen between  the Offshore Contractors Association (which represents the major employers) and N. Sea trade unions.

oil 50 barrel

Webb added: “The basin needs sustained, high investment – £94 billion alone to recover the 10 billion boe in known reserves.  This is why a concerted effort on three fronts is needed – tax, regulation and cost – to make the basin more attractive to investors and ensure that significant sums of much-needed capital come to the UK.”

On a brighter note, one positive finding of this year’s survey is that production in 2014 had its best year-on-year performance since 2000, falling just 1% since 2013 to 1.42 million boe per day (boepd). This was largely the result of investment in new project start-ups, enabled by targeted tax allowances, and a specific focus across the industry on improving production efficiency in existing fields which resulted in no major unplanned shutdowns.

This year up to 15 new fields could begin production with many expected in the first half of the year. If there is no major project slippage, oil and gas production could increase to around 1.43 million boepd in 2015. 

Webb concluded: “The N. Sea offshore oil and gas industry is a major national asset. Our indigenous resources hold the promise of a successful industry for decades to come and we have the skills needed to realise that potential.

“The industry is taking measures to improve its cost efficiency and we are pleased that even before the steep fall in oil price, the Government took the important steps of implementing the Wood Review recommendations and conducting a comprehensive tax review. The time has now come for delivery of permanent change on those fronts.

‘We need to see full delivery of the Wood Review recommendations as well as a permanent reduction in the headline rate of tax, a simplification of the tax allowance structure and stimulus for exploration.

“We must, together, do what is needed to reduce costs, encourage investment, and avoid premature decline.”

Scot-Govt. calls for N. Sea investment tax boost

The Scottish Government has submitted its formal response to the UK government consultation on investment tax allowances for N. Sea oil exploration companies.

Fergus Ewing, Scottish Energy Minister said: “Our response outlines proposals for a well-designed investment allowance that would simplify the fiscal regime and signal to global investors that the North Sea is open for business.

“The Scottish Government has long been calling for reforms to the oil and gas fiscal regime – including the introduction of a basin-wide investment allowance.

“It is increasingly clear that the oil and gas fiscal regime has become overly complex, burdensome and uncompetitive.

“The Scottish Government is clear that in order to maximise economic recovery, and the Total Value Added by the sector to the economy, wider fiscal and regulatory reform must continue to be progressed with urgency.”

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