A few weeks ago, energy supermajor BP made a US$5 million investment in Belmont Technology, a Houston-based artificial intelligence (AI) start-up. The amount is small, but the potential is big. Phrases like AI, machine learning, cognitive computing and neural networks may still be lesser known in the energy industry, but they are about to get more important. A lot more important.
In the investment in Belmont Technology, BP is hoping to apply its AI cloud-based geoscience platform for more accurate lifecycle projections in exploration and reservoir modelling. Skills and analysis that used to be crunched by brute force or manually onsite are now taken to the cloud the power of new server technology and major advances in computing. By feeding historical data on geology, geophysics, reservoir and assets, the AI can throw a bombardment of computing power at the data to map it in new ways, identifying connections and trends that might miss the human eye of an analyst. Reacting to real-time data, the dynamic nature of AI technology like this allows for a 90% time reduction in data collection, interpretation and simulation.
It isn’t the only AI venture that BP is in. The British firm already has a tie-up with start-up Beyond Limits, using software used to model deep space exploration missions to refine its economic models for reservoir development, crude oil refining and fuel distributions. And it certainly isn’t the only supermajor in the area. Shell has its own AI and machine learning department in-house, tackling issues as varied as equipment failure to electric vehicle charging optimisation. Total is following in those footsteps, partnering with Tata Consultancy to build a digital innovation centre to explore AI, automation and agile methodology technology. Chevron and ExxonMobil have looked outward and building partnerships. Chevron has a 7-year deal with Microsoft to use Azure to accelerate its analytics and Internet of Things capabilities, while ExxonMobil has also partnered with Microsoft to boost its cloud technology in the Permian – aiming to improve capital efficiency and support output growth of 50,000 b/d by 2025.
The trend isn’t just limited to the supermajors. All across the entire value chain of the oil industry, players big and small are embracing digitisation. Last year, industrial specialist Rockwell Automation and services firm Schlumberger formed a joint venture called Sensia, a firm focused on ‘selling equipment and services to advance digital technology and automation in the oilfield’. In a nutshell, Sensia is promising a future where drilling rigs can run on automated schedules, oilfield equipment can communicate between themselves and machinery can assess when maintenance is required. It is making drilling for oil smarter, cheaper and more efficient with less labour. All across the world, data science-focused start-ups like VROC AI and Element AI are popping up – leveraging neural networks and artificial intelligence technology to offer novel and innovative predictive solutions to the oil industry, from more accurate reservoir management to remapping entire geological formations.
Google, Amazon and Microsoft are the leaders in large-scale machine learning, backed by their vast cloud servers – which is already powering operations at supermajors and state oil firms like Equinor and Petronas. But innovation doesn’t just lie in the very big, which is why BP’s investment into Belmont Technology is important. Belmont Technology today could be the Amazon Web Services Oil & Gas division of tomorrow. By 2035, consultancy McKinsey estimates that data analytics and robotics could save the energy industry some US$290-390 billion in annual productivity. For an industry so sensitive to costs, that’s a tantalising dream and the reason to invest now.
Infographic: Recent Big Data moves by Big Oil
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At first, it seemed like a done deal. Chevron made a US$33 billion offer to take over US-based upstream independent Anadarko Petroleum. It was a 39% premium to Anadarko’s last traded price at the time and would have been the largest industry deal since Shell’s US$61 billion takeover of the BG Group in 2015. The deal would have given Chevron significant and synergistic acreage in the Permian Basin along with new potential in US midstream, as well as Anadarko’s high potential projects in Africa. Then Occidental Petroleum swooped in at the eleventh hour, making the delicious new bid and pulling the carpet out from under Chevron.
We can thank Warren Buffet for this. Occidental Petroleum, or Oxy, had previously made several quiet approaches to purchase Anadarko. These were rebuffed in favour of Chevron’s. Then Oxy’s CEO Vicki Hollub took the company jet to meet with Buffet. Playing to his reported desire to buy into shale, Hollub returned with a US$10 billion cash infusion from Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway – which was contingent on Oxy’s successful purchase of Anadarko. Hollub also secured a US$8.8 billion commitment from France’s Total to sell off Anadarko’s African assets. With these aces, she then re-approached Anadarko with a new deal – for US$38 billion.
This could have sparked off a price war. After all, the Chevron-Anadarko deal made a lot of sense – securing premium spots in the prolific Permian, creating a 120 sq.km corridor in the sweet spot of the shale basin, the Delaware. But the risk-adverse appetite of Chevron’s CEO Michael Wirth returned, and Chevron declined to increase its offer. By bowing out of the bid, Wirth said ‘Cost and capital discipline always matters…. winning in any environment doesn’t mean winning at any cost… for the sake for doing a deal.” Chevron walks away with a termination fee of US$1 billion and the scuppered dreams of matching ExxonMobil in size.
And so Oxy was victorious, capping off a two-year pursuit by Hollub for Anadarko – which only went public after the Chevron bid. This new ‘global energy leader’ has a combined 1.3 mmb/d boe production, but instead of leveraging Anadarko’s more international spread of operations, Oxy is looking for a future that is significantly more domestic.
The Oxy-Anadarko marriage will make Occidental the undisputed top producer in the Permian Basin, the hottest of all current oil and gas hotspots. Oxy was once a more international player, under former CEO Armand Hammer, who took Occidental to Libya, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, the Congo and other developing markets. A downturn in the 1990s led to a refocusing of operations on the US, with Oxy being one of the first companies to research extracting shale oil. And so, as the deal was done, Anadarko’s promising projects in Africa – Area 1 and the Mozambique LNG project, as well as interest in Ghana, Algeria and South Africa – go to Total, which has plenty of synergies to exploit. The retreat back to the US makes sense; Anadarko’s 600,000 acres in the Permian are reportedly the most ‘potentially profitable’ and it also has a major presence in Gulf of Mexico deepwater. Occidental has already identified 10,000 drilling locations in Anadarko areas that are near existing Oxy operations.
While Chevron licks its wounds, it can comfort itself with the fact that it is still the largest current supermajor presence in the Permian, with output there surging 70% in 2018 y-o-y. There could be other targets for acquisitions – Pioneer Natural Resources, Concho Resources or Diamondback Energy – but Chevron’s hunger for takeover seems to have diminished. And with it, the promises of an M&A bonanza in the Permian over 2019.
The Occidental-Anadarko deal:
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook
In April 2019, Venezuela's crude oil production averaged 830,000 barrels per day (b/d), down from 1.2 million b/d at the beginning of the year, according to EIA’s May 2019 Short-Term Energy Outlook. This average is the lowest level since January 2003, when a nationwide strike and civil unrest largely brought the operations of Venezuela's state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA), to a halt. Widespread power outages, mismanagement of the country's oil industry, and U.S. sanctions directed at Venezuela's energy sector and PdVSA have all contributed to the recent declines.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Baker Hughes
Venezuela’s oil production has decreased significantly over the last three years. Production declines accelerated in 2018, decreasing by an average of 33,000 b/d each month in 2018, and the rate of decline increased to an average of over 135,000 b/d per month in the first quarter of 2019. The number of active oil rigs—an indicator of future oil production—also fell from nearly 70 rigs in the first quarter of 2016 to 24 rigs in the first quarter of 2019. The declines in Venezuelan crude oil production will have limited effects on the United States, as U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude oil have decreased over the last several years. EIA estimates that U.S. crude oil imports from Venezuela in 2018 averaged 505,000 b/d and were the lowest since 1989.
EIA expects Venezuela's crude oil production to continue decreasing in 2019, and declines may accelerate as sanctions-related deadlines pass. These deadlines include provisions that third-party entities using the U.S. financial system stop transactions with PdVSA by April 28 and that U.S. companies, including oil service companies, involved in the oil sector must cease operations in Venezuela by July 27. Venezuela's chronic shortage of workers across the industry and the departure of U.S. oilfield service companies, among other factors, will contribute to a further decrease in production.
Additionally, U.S. sanctions, as outlined in the January 25, 2019 Executive Order 13857, immediately banned U.S. exports of petroleum products—including unfinished oils that are blended with Venezuela's heavy crude oil for processing—to Venezuela. The Executive Order also required payments for PdVSA-owned petroleum and petroleum products to be placed into an escrow account inaccessible by the company. Preliminary weekly estimates indicate a significant decline in U.S. crude oil imports from Venezuela in February and March, as without direct access to cash payments, PdVSA had little reason to export crude oil to the United States.
India, China, and some European countries continued to receive Venezuela's crude oil, according to data published by ClipperData Inc. Venezuela is likely keeping some crude oil cargoes intended for exports in floating storageuntil it finds buyers for the cargoes.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, and Clipper Data Inc.
A series of ongoing nationwide power outages in Venezuela that began on March 7 cut electricity to the country's oil-producing areas, likely damaging the reservoirs and associated infrastructure. In the Orinoco Oil Belt area, Venezuela produces extra-heavy crude oil that requires dilution with condensate or other light oils before the oil is sent by pipeline to domestic refineries or export terminals. Venezuela’s upgraders, complex processing units that upgrade the extra-heavy crude oil to help facilitate transport, were shut down in March during the power outages.
If Venezuelan crude or upgraded oil cannot flow as a result of a lack of power to the pumping infrastructure, heavier molecules sink and form a tar-like layer in the pipelines that can hinder the flow from resuming even after the power outages are resolved. However, according to tanker tracking data, Venezuela's main export terminal at Puerto José was apparently able to load crude oil onto vessels between power outages, possibly indicating that the loaded crude oil was taken from onshore storage. For this reason, EIA estimates that Venezuela's production fell at a faster rate than its exports.
EIA forecasts that Venezuela's crude oil production will continue to fall through at least the end of 2020, reflecting further declines in crude oil production capacity. Although EIA does not publish forecasts for individual OPEC countries, it does publish total OPEC crude oil and other liquids production. Further disruptions to Venezuela's production beyond what EIA currently assumes would change this forecast.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 13 May 2019 – Brent: US$70/b; WTI: US$61/b
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