Has the North Sea entered a late-life crisis?
Each oil price crash has brought with it talks of decommissioning, and of bringing down the curtain on North Sea production once and for all. Despite this grim outlook, caution must be taken not to tarnish the whole region with a single brush. The outlooks for the UK and for Norway differ quite substantially. At present, both countries are benefiting from the fruits of several years of high and stable prices, which filled producers with a false sense of confidence, allowing them to chase projects at seemingly any cost. However, one year of low oil prices has transformed the outlook. The UK will benefit in the next two years from new project start-ups and from producers shifting capital to maximize short-term output to manage the downturn. But beyond the short-term respite, UK production is likely to fall as decline rates accelerate, and as the investment, along with the expertise, of IOCs exits the basin.
For Norway, the reserve base is much higher so the challenges are different. There has not been a mass exodus of major players from the basin, although managing high declines and rising costs remains a tall obstacle to overcome. Total capacity additions between 2015 and 2020 equate to 0.82 mb/d, although without the giant Johan Sverdrup field (which is a story for the next decade as it is only due to come on stream in late 2019) additions are only 0.51 mb/d and very front-end loaded. Therefore, by H2 16, it is likely that Norwegian production will stagnate or even start to decline. This is particularly true as offshore production is expected to be impacted by reduced amounts of infill drilling, as IOCs look to reduce Capex.
Whilst new areas – such as tight oil – have a lot of scope for efficiency, mature basins will struggle to achieve similar efficiency gains and to push service costs down. High costs, declining reserves, growing decommissioning activity in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS), and plummeting tax revenues for governments are forcing through some very difficult decisions, which arguably should have been made many years ago.