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Professional services organisation, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), published their latest report, 'A Sea Change - The future of the North Sea Oil & Gas', which seeks to define the state of the North Sea Oil and Gas industry and, through the contribution of some 30+ anonymous 'senior industry stakeholders', give some guidance on how the industry could change to secure a turnaround in fortunes within a 24-month window of opportunity. Whilst full of positive sentiment, I can't help but worry that fundamentally, the North Sea Oil and Gas industry is averse to change.

The strongest element of the report is the urgent need for disruptive thinking within an industry that has always cyclically repeated the past and now, in a lower for longer environment, expects and needs different results. It shouldn't take Einstein to see the insanity of that as a strategy.

In theory, three of the most innovative or potentially most impactful ideas mooted are: consortium funding; nationalisation of the supply infrastructure; and standardisation of technologies. However, in heeding lessons from other large scale industries that have been forced into significant change, these are sometimes not without their problems when it comes to practical implementation.

Consortium funding

The exit of many forms or scale of traditional funding from the industry has crippled exploration and development activities. Consortium funding, where those Operators (or Service companies) with deeper pockets club together to finance projects of mutual benefit could well go some way to replacing some of the more risk-averse sources that have withdrawn their support in recent times, scared off by unworkable reserves or performance covenant based lending. The worry is that whilst this may reduce the capital injection required, lenders will still take funding decisions or guarantees based on the weakest link in any partnership. Recovering after the 2008 financial crash, lending institutions of all sizes, despite having billions made available to inject back into the market, were more interested in rebuilding their own balance sheets before providing much-needed market stimulation. Perhaps, in the North Sea, those with the deepest pockets could provide more assurity than others, but then with shareholder pressure, Operators and Service companies may take the same approach in addressing their own needs first. 

Nationalised infrastructure

One of the biggest threats to the sustainability of supply in the North Sea is the integrity and long-term viability of the supply structure. Much of the efficiency savings achieved in the last decades that have driven the North Sea production cost to be amongst the most competitive in the world stem from collaborative use of the offshore pipeline and tie-back infrastructure. As fields face decommissioning or reduced investment in integrity, this advantage may literally erode. So, the industry suggests passing the maintenance of the infrastructure onto the Government. However, as an option, this has a familiar ring.

The nationalised National Rail inherited a poorly maintained infrastructure from the private Rail Track group of companies. Several catastrophic failures, mismanagement and massive losses led to this re-nationalisation where the bulk of the ongoing cost for the upkeep falls to the tax payer. A similar deal with the UK people, who perhaps would not hold the same fondness for bailing out the oil and gas industry, may struggle to find far-reaching support.


A key collaborative initiative that will only work if there is true commitment to co-operate from both Operators and Suppliers is standardisation. Macondo and other milestones have necessarily driven the performance standards demanded of oilfield equipment and operations higher and higher. However, raising the bar to a level where all equipment must meet the same stringent specifications whatever the working conditions is an expensive gold-plated option that led to spiralling industry costs in recent times. Likewise, the pursuit of competitive advantage by technology developers has baked in over-complexity and a lack of interoperability that similarly impacts on costs. Lessons can be learned from the automotive industry that introduced cross-manufacturer standardisation and many other technology and supply chain collaborations that greatly contributed to reduced manufacturing costs.

An industry averse to change

Change management experts identify several common traits in individuals and organisational cultures that lead to the lack of success or failure of change programmes. I believe that industries as a whole, including the Oil and Gas industry, can also be affected by these same factors leading to less than practical success when compared to the vision or goals such as this one.

Fear of the unknown

The precipitous decline of the oil price came as a surprise to most. However, like a blind-sided boxer left reeling from a stunning left hook, the industry has taken too long to gather its wits and come back fighting.

As an industry, Oil and Gas displays an astonishing lack of flexibility in its interpretation of and reaction to the information it has to hand. Just like the proverbial oil tanker, even with all the signs of oversupply, spiralling costs and reduced global demand, the industry failed to read the signs and change direction. And now, almost two years later, we are still lamenting how the industry should change rather than celebrating how it has changed.

Greater emphasis needs to be placed on reading the signs of the cycle and not adding too much complexity on what is still essentially a supply and demand driven market.


Much hope is placed on the UK Government's fiscal mechanisms to create a more favourable market environment. Whilst the PwC report cites praise for some of the changes that have been made, they make little difference currently in a market without revenue. UK Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, on a trip to open the new Total Shetland gas plant, made no apologies for her lack of a visit to Aberdeen fully a year after taking up the appointment that oversees the UK's energy policies - including North Sea Oil and Gas. That is clearly not something that inspires trust within the industry that the Westminster government has a clear plan. One could argue that they do not even have a vested interest in the industry with the tax take moving into negative figures for the first time in 2015-16, falling from over £2 billion the previous year and down from £10 billion contribution just five years ago.

Loss of control

The perception that change will take away control has a crippling effect. The often quoted story of the howling dog not moving from the nail it is sitting on because the pain is not yet bad enough, exemplifies how the fear of what is on the other side of change outweighs the imperative for action. But surely, the industry has endured a deep enough pain that even the most thick-skinned or stubborn cannot ignore.

Bad timing

The longer the industry waits to make significant changes the less chance they will be made. As the oil price appears to stabilise around $50, the industry is already showing signs of drawing its breath in preparation to releasing a collective sigh of relief. However, $50 as the new bottom is tenuous and there is still a long way to go before significant spending returns. There will be many more companies and individuals who do not retain their positions to see the benefits of a market recovery.

PwC's report suggests a 24-month window of opportunity. I would ask why more was not done a year ago when the window was open even wider.

Predisposition toward change

Finally, a person's attitude to change plays a large part in how actively they engage with it. We all know and understand that the Oil and Gas industry operates on a cycle of boom and bust. If so, then as an industry why change at all? Let's just wait for the next upcycle to swing by.

Even if there is sufficient oil under the North Sea for another 20+ years, there is the clear and present danger that without decisive change, the UK's ability to extract it profitably will be severely damaged. Lack of investment in exploration and production, the supply infrastructure or retaining the skilled workforce within the North Sea basin will all impact negatively and, again, drive costs up and competitiveness down.

Leading change

It is likely that seeking salvation from outside the industry at a Government level will not bear much fruit. Instead, change should be led from the inside out. Our industry leaders, therefore, bring the greatest chance of change within the Oil and Gas industry.

Organisations that want to have a long-term future in the North Sea, need to embed change within their organisations from the top down. Executive teams need to consider change at the forefront of their strategy and decision making, ensuring that it is a core competency of management and a key skill throughout the organisation.

Through championing change, great leaders create an environment that nurtures the most innovative and creative thinking from their people. Openness, transparency and availability of information for improved decision-making build the integrity and trust needed to drive difficult changes throughout the workforce and the whole industry. Developing a wider sense of trust will also bring greater collaboration between industry players.

By David Wilson from Refining Business

United Kingdom West Europe Aberdeen Decommissioning
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Your Weekly Update: 11 - 15 February 2019

Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 February 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b

  • Oil prices remains entrenched in their trading ranges, with OPEC’s attempt to control global crude supplies mitigated by increasing concerns over the health of the global economy
  • Warnings, including from The Bank of England, point to a global economic slowdown that could be ‘worse and longer-lasting than first thought’; one of the main variables in this forecast are the trade tensions between the US and China, which show no sign of being solved with President Trump saying he is open to delaying the current deadline of March 1 for trade talks
  • This poorer forecast for global oil demand has offset supply issues flaring up within OPEC, with Libya reporting ongoing fighting at the country’s largest oilfield while the current political crisis in Venezuela could see its crude output drop to 700,000 b/d by 2020
  • The looming new American sanctions on Venezuelan crude has already had concrete results, with US refiner Marathon Petroleum moving to replace Venezuelan crude with similar grades from the Middle East and Latin America
  • While Nicolas Maduro holds on to power, Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido has promised to scrap requirements that PDVSA keep a controlling stake in domestic oil joint ventures and boost oil production through an open economy when his government-in-power takes over
  • Despite OPEC’s attempts to stabilise crude prices, the US House has advanced the so-called NOPEC bill – which could subject the cartel to antitrust action – to a vote, with a similar bill currently being debated in the US Senate
  • The see-saw pattern in the US active rig count continues; after a net loss of 14 rigs last week, the Baker Hughes rig survey reported a gain of 7 new oil rigs and a loss of 3 gas rigs for a net gain of 4 rigs
  • While demand is a concern, global crude supply remains delicate enough to edge prices up, especially with Saudi Arabia going for deeper-than-expected cuts; this should push Brent up towards US$64/b and WTI towards US$55/b in trading this week

Headlines of the week


  • Egypt is looking to introduce a new type of oil and gas contract to attract greater upstream investment into the country, aiming to be ‘less bureaucratic and more efficient’ with faster cost-recovery, ahead of a planned Red Sea bid round encompassing over a dozen concession sites
  • Lukoil has commenced on a new phase at the West Qurna-2 field in Iraq, with 57 production wells planned at the Mishrif and Yamama formation that could boost output by 80,000 boe/d to 480,000 boe/d in 2020
  • Aker BP has hit oil and natural gas flows at well 24/9-14 in the Froskelår Main prospect in the Alvheim area of the Norwergian Continental Shelf
  • Things continue to be rocky for crude producers in Canada’s Alberta province; production limits were increased last week after being previously slashed to curb a growing glut on news that crude storage levels dropped, but now face trouble being transported south as pipelines remain at capacity and crude-by-rail shipments face challenging economics

Midstream & Downstream

  • The Caribbean island of Curacao is now speaking with two new candidates to operate the 335 kb/d Isla refinery after its preferred bidder – said to be Saudi Aramco’s American arm Motiva Enterprises – withdrew from consideration to replace the current operatorship under PDVSA
  • America’s Delta Air Lines is now reportedly looking to sell its oil refinery in Pennsylvania outright, after attempts to sell a partial stake in the 185 kb/d plant failed to attract interest, largely due to its limited geographical position

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Total reports that it has made a new ‘significant’ gas condensate discovery offshore South Africa at the Brulpadda prospect in Block 11B/12B in the Outeniqua Basin, with the Brulpadda-deep well also reporting ‘successful’ flows of natural gas condensate
  • Italy’s Eni and Saudi Arabia’s SABIC have signed a new Joint Development Agreement to collaborate on developing technologies for gas-to-liquids and gas-to-chemicals applications
  • The Rovuma LNG project in Mozambique is charging ahead with development, with Eni looking to contract out subsea operations for the Mamba gas project by mid-March and ExxonMobil choosing its contractor for building the complex’s LNG trains by April
February, 15 2019

Forecast Highlights

Global liquid fuels

  • Brent crude oil spot prices averaged $59 per barrel (b) in January, up $2/b from December 2018 but $10/b lower than the average in January of last year. EIA forecasts Brent spot prices will average $61/b in 2019 and $62/b in 2020, compared with an average of $71/b in 2018. EIA expects that West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices will average $8/b lower than Brent prices in the first quarter of 2019 before the discount gradually falls to $4/b in the fourth quarter of 2019 and through 2020.
  • EIA estimates that U.S. crude oil production averaged 12.0 million barrels per day (b/d) in January, up 90,000 b/d from December. EIA forecasts U.S. crude oil production to average 12.4 million b/d in 2019 and 13.2 million b/d in 2020, with most of the growth coming from the Permian region of Texas and New Mexico.
  • Global liquid fuels inventories grew by an estimated 0.5 million b/d in 2018, and EIA expects they will grow by 0.4 million b/d in 2019 and by 0.6 million b/d in 2020.
  • U.S. crude oil and petroleum product net imports are estimated to have fallen from an average of 3.8 million b/d in 2017 to an average of 2.4 million b/d in 2018. EIA forecasts that net imports will continue to fall to an average of 0.9 million b/d in 2019 and to an average net export level of 0.3 million b/d in 2020. In the fourth quarter of 2020, EIA forecasts the United States will be a net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products by about 1.1 million b/d.

Natural gas

  • The Henry Hub natural gas spot price averaged $3.13/million British thermal units (MMBtu) in January, down 91 cents/MMBtu from December. Despite a cold snap in late January, average temperatures for the month were milder than normal in much of the country, which contributed to lower prices. EIA expects strong growth in U.S. natural gas production to put downward pressure on prices in 2019. EIA expects Henry Hub natural gas spot prices to average $2.83/MMBtu in 2019, down 32 cents/MMBtu from the 2018 average. NYMEX futures and options contract values for May 2019 delivery traded during the five-day period ending February 7, 2019, suggest a range of $2.15/MMBtu to $3.30/MMBtu encompasses the market expectation for May 2019 Henry Hub natural gas prices at the 95% confidence level.
  • EIA forecasts that dry natural gas production will average 90.2 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2019, up 6.9 Bcf/d from 2018. EIA expects natural gas production will continue to rise in 2020 to an average of 92.1 Bcf/d.

Electricity, coal, renewables, and emissions

  • EIA expects the share of U.S. total utility-scale electricity generation from natural gas-fired power plants to rise from 35% in 2018 to 36% in 2019 and to 37% in 2020. EIA forecasts that the electricity generation share from coal will average 26% in 2019 and 24% in 2020, down from 28% in 2018. The nuclear share of generation was 19% in 2018 and EIA forecasts that it will stay near that level in 2019 and in 2020. The generation share of hydropower is forecast to average slightly less than 7% of total generation in 2019 and 2020, similar to last year. Wind, solar, and other nonhydropower renewables together provided about 10% of electricity generation in 2018. EIA expects them to provide 11% in 2019 and 13% in 2020.
  • EIA expects average U.S. solar generation will rise from 265,000 megawatthours per day (MWh/d) in 2018 to 301,000 MWh/d in 2019 (an increase of 14%) and to 358,000 MWh/d in 2020 (an increase of 19%). These forecasts of solar generation include large-scale facilities as well as small-scale distributed solar generators, primarily on residential and commercial buildings.
  • In 2019, EIA expects wind’s annual share of generation will exceed hydropower’s share for the first time. EIA forecasts that wind generation will rise from 756 MWh/d in 2018 to 859 MWh/d in 2019 (a share of 8%). Wind generation is further projected to rise to 964 MWh/d (a share of 9%) by 2020.
  • EIA estimates that U.S. coal production declined by 21 million short tons (MMst) (3%) in 2018, totaling 754 MMst. EIA expects further declines in coal production of 4% in 2019 and 6% in 2020 because of falling power sector consumption and declines in coal exports. Coal consumed for electricity generation declined by an estimated 4% (27 MMst) in 2018. EIA expects that lower electricity demand, lower natural gas prices, and further retirements of coal-fired capacity will reduce coal consumed for electricity generation by 8% in 2019 and by a further 6% in 2020. Coal exports, which increased by 20% (19 MMst) in 2018, decline by 13% and 8% in 2019 and 2020, respectively, in the forecast.
  • After rising by 2.8% in 2018, EIA forecasts that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will decline by 1.3% in 2019 and by 0.5% in 2020. The 2018 increase largely reflects increased weather-related natural gas consumption because of additional heating needs during a colder winter and for additional electric generation to support more cooling during a warmer summer than in 2017. EIA expects emissions to decline in 2019 and 2020 because of forecasted temperatures that will return to near normal. Energy-related CO2 emissions are sensitive to changes in weather, economic growth, energy prices, and fuel mix.

U.S. residential electricity price

  • West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil price
  • World liquid fuels production and consumption balance
  • U.S. natural gas prices
  • U.S. residential electricity price
  • West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil price
February, 13 2019
The State of the Industry: A Brightened 2018

2018 was a year that started with crude prices at US$62/b and ended at US$46/b. In between those two points, prices had gently risen up to peak of US$80/b as the oil world worried about the impact of new American sanctions on Iran in September before crashing down in the last two months on a rising tide of American production. What did that mean for the financial health of the industry over the last quarter and last year?

Nothing negative, it appears. With the last of the financial results from supermajors released, the world’s largest oil firms reported strong profits for Q418 and blockbuster profits for the full year 2018. Despite the blip in prices, the efforts of the supermajors – along with the rest of the industry – to keep costs in check after being burnt by the 2015 crash has paid off.

ExxonMobil, for example, may have missed analyst expectations for 4Q18 revenue at US$71.9 billion, but reported a better-than-expected net profit of US$6 billion. The latter was down 28% y-o-y, but the Q417 figure included a one-off benefit related to then-implemented US tax reform. Full year net profit was even better – up 5.7% to US$20.8 billion as upstream production rose to 4.01 mmboe/d – allowing ExxonMobil to come close to reclaiming its title of the world’s most profitable oil company.

But for now, that title is still held by Shell, which managed to eclipse ExxonMobil with full year net profits of US$21.4 billion. That’s the best annual results for the Anglo-Dutch firm since 2014; product of the deep and painful cost-cutting measures implemented after. Shell’s gamble in purchasing the BG Group for US$53 billion – which sparked a spat of asset sales to pare down debt – has paid off, with contributions from LNG trading named as a strong contributor to financial performance. Shell’s upstream output for 2018 came in at 3.78 mmb/d and the company is also looking to follow in the footsteps of ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP in the Permian, where it admits its footprint is currently ‘a bit small’.

Shell’s fellow British firm BP also reported its highest profits since 2014, doubling its net profits for the full year 2018 on a 65% jump in 4Q18 profits. It completes a long recovery for the firm, which has struggled since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, allowing it to focus on the future – specifically US shale through the recent US$10.5 billion purchase of BHP’s Permian assets. Chevron, too, is focusing on onshore shale, as surging Permian output drove full year net profit up by 60.8% and 4Q18 net profit up by 19.9%. Chevron is also increasingly focusing on vertical integration again – to capture the full value of surging Texas crude by expanding its refining facilities in Texas, just as ExxonMobil is doing in Beaumont. French major Total’s figures may have been less impressive in percentage terms – but that it is coming from a higher 2017 base, when it outperformed its bigger supermajor cousins.

So, despite the year ending with crude prices in the doldrums, 2018 seems to be proof of Big Oil’s ability to better weather price downturns after years of discipline. Some of the control is loosening – major upstream investments have either been sanctioned or planned since 2018 – but there is still enough restraint left over to keep the oil industry in the black when trends turn sour.

Supermajor Net  Profits for 4Q18 and 2018

1. ExxonMobil:

- 4Q18 – Net profit US$6 billion (-28%);

- 2018 – Net profit US$20.8 (+5.7%)

2. Shell:

- 4Q18 – Net profit US$5.69 billion (+32.3%);

- 2018 – Net profit US$21.4 billion (+36%)

3. Chevron:

- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.73 billion (+19.9%);

- 2018 – Net profit US$14.8 billion (+60.8%)

4. BP:

- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.48 billion (+65%);

- 2018 - Net profit US$12.7 billion (+105%)

5. Total: 

- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.88 billion (+16%);

- 2018 - Net profit US$13.6 billion (+28%)

February, 12 2019