You heard it here first folks…

I’m not normally known for left-leaning political judgement but – just in case you missed it the Scottish Government is being asked to consider a motion to fund public investment in the infrastructure of the North Sea.

“UK OIL would work with the Oil and Gas Authority to identify strategic assets that are potentially profitable. That would help to prevent platforms and pipelines being lost earlier than planned, and potentially help fund new ones for the future.

“We urgently need imaginative thinking like this now – otherwise the oil and gas sector could continue to decline due to lack of investment.”

Here’s the [link]

13 month’s ago this blog published an article which, amongst other points said:

To address this will require restructuring the way that the industry operates. If not outright nationalisation of parts of the network, this – at least – requires more control and probably limited subsidies. For goodness sake – we subsidise the tracks that our trains run on, I can’t see any argument for the creation of economic value there that does not apply to our North Sea processing and export network.

Here’s that [link]

 

 

Schumpter’s Cayman Island holiday

Schumpter was an economist who theorised on the creative destruction of capital, replacing activity in old industries with activity in new ones. I’m not an economist, but to me it is an interesting time now because it all seems to be a bit broken – the oil industry is being knocked down by external (temporary) market distortions and governments are unable to enact public policies that might help because they don’t have access to the tax base they once had – and have been busy expanding the spending of what they do have on other things.

Today’s FT was a classic issue – with stories exploring some hot topics:

Accelerated Decommissioning in an article titled – “North Sea fields face end of production” [Link]

A piece examining the dynamics of adjusting to low oil prices – “Oil Producers retool for lower prices” [link]

A call for support and regulatory intervention into the North Sea shared infrastructure – “Premier Oil urges action to maintain North Sea fields” [link]

A story about BP’s accounting profit – “BP Shares tumble after $2.2Bn fourth-quarter loss” [link]

The WoodMac analysis says that 50 North Sea fields could cease production this year. Of course they will need to apply for COP (Cessation of Production) agreement from the government:

Prior to permanently ceasing production from a field, Licensees will have to satisfy the department that all economic development opportunities have been pursued. To ensure that all issues are addressed thoroughly before agreement to CoP is required [link].

The article goes on to speculate that some of the lost revenues for exploration service companies might be replaced by decommissioning revenues. While this might be true on an aggregate revenue basis, it’s unlikely that you can use a seismic survey vessel in this process so there will be capital assets that become worth a lot less, even if employment has some life-lines.

The dynamics of low price adjustments are explored by Amrita Sen and Virendra Chauhan from Energy Aspects [link] – they make a great point that one of the cause of high costs in the last up-cycle was shortage of skilled labour (sometimes referred to as the big crew change [link] ). Many of the current workforce (upwards of 250,000 people [link]) have been laid off and many will leave the industry permanently. This may set-up a cost-dynamic that will increase input prices and damp capacity for the inevitable upturn, potentially leading to even larger commodity price spikes and surges in service company profits?

The call from Tony Durrant, Premier CEO asking the regulator to step in to protect shared infrastructure in the North Sea is one that I’ve supported on this site for a while. It’s not just power that they need (the CoP mechanism may already mean they have it) it is one of public policy, subsidy and – ultimately – courage. We saw David Cameron promise £250m to Aberdeen (aiming it in entirely the wrong direction). But that is really small potatoes, which – to mix a metaphor, and pay homage to John Major – will butter no parsnips.

This is not really subsidising or investing in infrastructure: For instance if we look at Indonesia:

The government’s plan includes constructing power plants that would supply 20,000 megawatts of electricity in the next 10 years and 1,095 kilometers of new toll roads to move goods faster across the vast archipelago. The projects will be concentrated in six “economic corridors” or growth centers: Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali-Nusa Tenggara, and Papua- Maluku. The price tag: $150 billion over the next five years. But the government can only finance 30 percent of the cost; the rest would have to come from the private sector. [link]

If we look at Cross-Rail, a train to move people slightly faster from Maidenhead to Lewisham has a budget of around £15Bn [link] (which is 60x the subsidy for the North Sea)

In the 1970’s the Oil industry was seen as a way of providing tax revenues to the UK – you might argue that much of the Thatcher-era economic achievement was predicated on Britain becoming a net exporter of oil which, combined with the sell-off state industries, increased the tax take and enabled the unwinding of the debt accumulated by previous governments.

Most people don’t realise that Oil companies don’t pay just normal corporation tax – PRT is charged on “super-profits” arising from the exploitation of oil and gas in the UK and the UK’s continental shelf. After certain allowances, PRT is charged at a rate of 50% (falling to 35% from 1 Jan 2016) on profits from oil extraction. PRT is charged by reference to individual oil and gas fields, so the costs related to developing and running one field cannot be set off against the profits generated by another field. PRT was abolished on 16 March 1993 for all fields given development consent on or after that date. [Link]

Corporation tax supplementary charge manual here [link]

It’s perhaps as well that these sort of measures are in place because Oil companies (and service companies) are very well practiced in the art of reducing corporation tax – either by legitimately moving costs to high tax areas and profits to low-tax ones, or by – as BP has done today – booking as big a loss as they can (when it’s expected – a practice called “taking a bath”). They do this to provide a shield for future profits against tax. A practice similar to that used by the banks to shield their current earnings from the losses of the financial crash of 2008 [link]. Many of today’s tax “dodges” have been heavily utilised by our industry.

We’re seeing a situation where an industry (one of our few industrial and engineering success stories of scale left in the UK) being decimated by a temporary market swing and there is nothing that the government can do about it because the new industries which are very profitable pay little tax and where disruptive industries are supported by the “subsidy” from investor’s tax free cash piles sitting offshore.

Take for example UBER and it’s disruption of local tax-optimising (sorry mate only cash) taxi drivers:

A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue. The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation.

An obvious but rarely asked question is: whose cash is Uber burning? With investors like Google, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs behind it, Uber is a perfect example of a company whose global expansion has been facilitated by the inability of governments to tax profits made by hi-tech and financial giants.

To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.

[Link]

Interesting times indeed.

Subsidy on the agenda?

Last year I suggested that there were strategic reasons to maintain North Sea production. The system of interconnected assets and their cross-reliance on each other means that it will be in the common good for “UK PLC” to maintain key infrastructure despite it being a poor proposition for individual operators.

For goodness sake – we subsidise the tracks that our trains run on, I can’t see any argument for the creation of economic value there that does not apply to our North Sea processing and export network. [Link]

So I was heartened to see that David Cameron is in Aberdeen with what the FT called an emergency investment package. I was less pleased to see what the promised £250m investment was to be spent on:

The prime minister will promise a new “oil and gas technology centre” in Aberdeen to fund future research, including into innovative ways to extract oil and gas.

The package will also help expand the harbour and support the city’s pharmaceutical and agri-food industries to try to help Aberdeen diversify from its reliance on oil and gas. [Link]

Well that’s not exactly the response I was thinking about – seems to be a rather poor investment case for UK PLC. Luckily we’ve formed another task force.

His visit coincides with the first meeting of a new task force of senior ministers set up to deal with the issue, chaired by Amber Rudd, energy secretary. The group will include Anna Soubry, business minister, and David Mundell, the Scotland secretary.

Together with the OGA there seems to be plenty of civil servants looking at the issue.

True to form – the FT actually got to the nub of the issue with its parting shot:

Many in the industry are also urging George Osborne, the chancellor, to relax the rules around who pays to decommission oil platforms when they reach the end of their lifespan. Many argue that the strict laws making anybody who has ever owned a particular platform potentially liable for its eventual dismantling are discouraging companies from buying up ageing assets and investing in them.

One energy banker said: “One of the things that could really help is if we see more takeover activity, with companies buying either struggling rivals or older rigs.”But the main thing stopping that right now is that nobody wants to take on potentially massive decommissioning liabilities.”

The BBC covers his visit here [Link]

Despite the decline in oil prices there is risk capital available but to take this opportunity irequires a few critical pivots. They are:

  1. Decommissioning liabilities stopping the trade in assets to lower-cost operators
  2. Un-certainty surrounding enabling infrastructure operated by others
  3. Mis-alignment of interests between partners meaning operating committees stopping development plans

Perhaps rather than expanding Aberdeen Harbour we could change the rules and use this £250m to help sort these out? At least it would be a start.

What do you think, is the proposed disbursement the best use of the money?

INEOS, Small Fields, Politics and Tie-backs

Political intervention can swing both ways.  Political intervention in the L1 acquisition of DEA assets has enabled the INEOS deal announced today [Link]. This sees Jim Ratcliffe enter into the Upstream business with an opportunistic deal to buy assets reluctantly removed from the DEA portfolio [Link]. INEOS previously looked to be moving into shale developments in Scotland [Link] – the logic of vertical integration to supply his other assets is compelling. The shale move was stalled by the Scottish Government [Link]. Plus Ca Change, Plus C’est la meme chose as they say in the French Speaking regions around Lake Geneva where Jim’s HQ is located.

Perhaps Jim may consider lending his political influence to influence the debate over offshore developments – an area which is controlled by the UK goverment not the whims of the Scottish Parliament.

Perhaps he will point out the difficulty faced by new developments of  a small offshore oil-field which must find a way to process and transport the fluids to where they can be used. One way is to hook up to old platforms – many of which are now operating below their design capacity. As fields age production rates decline and this means platforms and pipelines built to support them become underutilised.

However, oil price declines means pressure has mounted to decommission the infrastructure that supports some of this production in the North Sea. For example Alex Mitchel [Link] says that he believes that the current fundamentals will lead to significant growth in decommissioning activity on the UKCS. He adds that operators are under increasing pressure to reduce exposure to high-cost regions, and remove decommissioning liabilities from balance sheets. Without traditional sale routes, operators will increasingly make strategic decisions to push forward with asset decommissioning. Advantages for first movers are evident, with the opportunity to avoid constraints in the supply chain, and take advantage of suppressed rig rates for P&A.

I asked a member of the Bestem Network who negotiated the commercial terms of some of the recent marginal developments what he thought. He told me that an FPSO option is often chosen not because it’s best, but because it increases control and reduces uncertainty. Tie-backs would be better but the modest initial tariffs can quickly change to become uncontrollable cost-sharing agreements.

FPSO’s require a certain volume to work effectively so they will inevitably not drain fields as fully as other options. Other fields will never produce enough to make an FPSO a viable option.

Once key infrastructure is gone, it is gone for ever. It will never be replaced. We have to act now if we are going to save this national asset.

Tax relief is not the answer – subsidy might be

As I was driving to Aberdeen last week I wondered what would happen if I considered the export and processing infrastructure in the North Sea was a road network on land.

Why would anyone build a factory in a remote area if they did not have access to roads? The same could be said of remote field developments that hook back into export and distribution systems.

Taking the analogy further, what if there was a road outside your proposed factory but it only led to the M6 Toll Motorway. What if that toll booth could raise its prices whenever it liked and there’s nothing you could do? What if sometimes when you turned up at the toll-booth it was broken, and no-one knew how long it would take to fix. What if, one day, you received a letter to say that they were digging up the motorway and restoring the land back to farming?

As a business man, I would find that unacceptable. I’d be a fool to build my factory at that location. And that, friends, is the situation we have currently have in the UK North Sea.

Not only is that the situation but – because oil prices are down – the probability of bad things happening has increased. Despite this Oil voice reports that MPs do not favour support of the oil and gas industry [Link] their report says that:

‘Tax reliefs and allowances can never fully offset the operational challenges posed by the falling oil price […] Whilst the majority of Government MPs appear to have made up their mind about their position, the latest developments could prompt a rethink. There is a potential opportunity for the industry to engage with undecided Labour MPs to make the case for additional support at this challenging time.’

I agree with the position that this is not about Tax relief. To address this will require restructuring the way that the industry operates. If not outright nationalisation of parts of the network, this – at least – requires more control and probably limited subsidies. For goodness sake – we subsidise the tracks that our trains run on, I can’t see any argument for the creation of economic value there that does not apply to our North Sea processing and export network.

When I talked about this at a networking event, an experienced member of the Bestem Network informed me that decommissioning must be sanctioned by the government. So, in a sense, because you need to apply for permission the assets are indirectly controlled by the government. But, as he then said, there are really no sanctions if you fail to operate assets productively or if they’re closed for maintenance. And, apparently, declaring a safety critical event before shutting in is something no-one has the balls to question. Apparently there is a voluntary “infrastructure code of conduct” [Link] that defines principles for access to other companies infrastructure but how effective this is in practice is something some members of the Bestem Network question.

The oil industry is in a down cycle – now is the time to be investing as a nation to maintain the capability to produce.

I am sure there are macro-economic arguments regarding the value of extracting assets under our control for any price (including opportunity costs for displaced workers and spending within the economy) vs. the export of national treasure in exchange for the import of similar from overseas. I am not qualified to make those arguments – if you are, please comment.

Infrastructure sharing in troubled times

I didn’t go to OE this year. I don’t think I was alone. From the reports I’ve heard things were quite subdued, except there were many people looking for work, apparently we are approaching 70,000 lay-offs in the UK Oil and Gas industry since 2014. Reports in yesterday’s guardian suggest that there is still more job cuts to come. This report in CITY AM – shows how the perception in London is being shaped and the urgency of the situation is being lost. CITY AM quoted job losses of only 5,500, and for many of the casual money men down here, that is all they will read.

The oil price is low. I remember when it was less than 25% of the current price– this report from the independent reminds us of $9 oil. In 1998 we also had the Asian currency crisis which started in 1997, what could a 75% drop in price do? With the recent wobbles in the China market, and talk of the commodity super cycle that wasn’t in the FT, is market perception changing, and perhaps there is further to fall?

I was pleased to see that Andy Samuel was quoted welcoming the efficiency task force – but I fear that these cross-company committees will be slow and ponderous. I also fear that operators will see this as a way to try to squeeze supplier prices and hurt the value chain. In my opinion, urgent structural change will be required to enable us to extract the resources that lie under the North Sea. Urgent because we need to maintain the infrastructure that will enable the extraction. This is a national opportunity and one that requires a national regulated response.

Andy was quoted as saying “The ETF is taking a three pronged approach to drive greater efficiency under the themes: Business Process; Standardisation; and Cooperation, Culture and Behaviours.” – Well frankly I don’t think this will be enough. I think the OGA must act, and use the powers it has (or obtain the ones it needs) to enable this. Of course, action like this is for the brave. Look at the trouble the control of access tariffs had in Norway, with investors suing the state. There must be questions about this with the recent private equity stakes being taken in CATS , FUKA and SIRGE – in one way this simplifies the access rights and can serve the needs of the customer better, but in another it centralises power in a way that only quick regulatory intervention can balance.

Can we get the last drop?

North Sea Oil and Gas is the property of the people from the countries that surround it – UK, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany. As a citizen of the UK I don’t want any more of my country’s wealth to be transferred to the citizens of other countries than is necessary. I think that this means extracting every last drop from this resource that we economically can.

There seems to be a number of issues that will stop this from happening. I hear many reasons that might account for it including:

  • High cost of production in the basin;
  • Inability for companies to co-operate on problem solving;
  • Individual companies optimising for their goals;
  • Lack of access to shared infrastructure;
  • Environmental impact; and
  • Decommissioning liabilities

I sense that if action is not taken soon, access will be lost to critical shared infrastructure. Should we get the last drops out of the North Sea? What do we need to do to make this happen?