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.


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?

Digitally disrupted operations

I have already said that I believe the time is now for O&G operations to become digital. Radically different cost models are going to be needed and digital is one way they will be achieved.

“When assessing the implications, consider the fact that that new digital business models are the principal reason why just over half of the names of companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000. And yet, we are only at the beginning of what the World Economic Forum calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” characterized not only by mass adoption of digital technologies but by innovations in everything from energy to biosciences.” Pierre Nanterme – Accenture CEO [Link]

For me this revolution started with a computer programme called Mosaic, the first internet browser – which I discovered in 1993 while goofing around using Kermit, WAIS, Gopher, FTP and downloading cool stuff from GNU. I was being paid to generally muck-about and call it work. Since that moment I have witnessed a massive rise in computing power, information storage and interconnectivity that has left me gawping in awe. The chart below, from The New Machine Age, illustrates the trend.

Five Phases of Disruption

I model this disruption in 4 overlapping phases that are well established (each relying on the ones before it to progress) – and we’re about to see the fifth phase make itself felt.

Phase 1: Pure Information Industries

This was the first to be disrupted. It started with libraries, newspapers and advertising. As technology progressed this then disrupted industries requiring higher information capacity (bandwidth & storage) such as music and radio, and is now doing the same for television and cable companies. Bi-directional communication led to the X-Factor, the Huffington Post and any number of citizen journalists and bloggers.

Phase 2: Customer Engagement

As more people started to have access to and use the internet it was a small extension to make commercial transactions and shopping. As this ramped up customer experience of retail, customer-service departments and opened up access to a vast array of diverse products that could never be held in stock on the high-street. Now there are very few consumer engagements that do not have to integrate a digital channel into their offerings. Coffee and haircuts can’t be online – just about everything else can. Even there Starbucks is integrating a digital offering into their coffee order-to-pay process.

Phase 3: Co-ordination and logistics

It started with on-line parcel tracking, cross-docking and behind-the-scenes scheduling algorithms. Adding mobile GPS and mobile data allowed supply chain and logistics to start its transformation. Firstly on the containerisation and automatic freight and now down to warehouse location, stock control and soon perhaps delivery by dedicated drones [Link]. Phases 1, 2 & 3 have combined to give me my Occado delivery today at 12:30 (sharp).

Phase 4: Asset and resource sharing

This phase is still young and we’re seeing it play out in the consumer space first – a reversal I’ll elaborate on later. Companies like AirBNB, Uber, ZIPCar and others. In general this is the idea that Assets are not fully utilised by their owners all the time, and spare capacity can be made available through a brokering and booking service – and then scheduled and delivered.

Phase 5: Machine-optimised operations

Remote sensing, predictive algorithms, human-machine teaming – integrated with maintenance planning (plus all the attributes in phases 1-3) should lead to more reliable plant constantly optimised and operated by fewer people. This phase is being referred to as The Internet of Things.

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing manufacturing as we know it. Factories and plants that are connected to the Internet are more efficient, productive and smarter than their non-connected counterparts. In a marketplace where companies increasingly need to do whatever they can to survive, those that don’t take advantage of connectivity are lagging behind.”  Forbes Magazine [Link]

The reversing order of adoption

Sometime between 1992 and now a reversal in adoption sequence occurred. Prior to Mosaic the sequence of adoption was: Military, Big Business, Small Business, and Consumer. There was also a geographic sequence that meant technologies emerging in California took a few years (5+?) to make it to Europe and the same again to make it to Asia. The order has now reversed and the spread of ideas is both bi-directional and super-fast. For instance we’re going to see individuals install HIVE before most plant install remote operations. So I think we can already see the new technologies and ways-of working being successfully deployed for consumers – the question is how will the Oil and Gas industry adapt them for its use?

How could real-time sharing of Oil and Gas assets and equipment be made to work? How could we create an “Oil-Uber” for self-employed drilling engineers? How can we scale-up technology like HIVE, algorithms for maintenance diagnostics, combined with the GPS on a tag like that in my £100 Garmin watch attached to and despatch the most available uber-spare-part.

Of course, innovations will sneak up on us through lots, and lots, of small changes but the effect will dramatic – looking back we will see the change, but it will happen gradually with the companies that use more efficient technologies buying assets from those that don’t – or, more accurately, buying assets from their officially appointed receivers.

Crash of 2016 and rise of internet of things

As I write this post crude Oil is trading a shade under $30 and Iran is set to re-enter the market. When I was in Kuwait I thought that the ramp-up of Iraqi production would swing the market – I had not counted Shale or Iran. In some ways a price drop was inevitable in a cyclical industry but the effect of this drop is painful for many good friends in Aberdeen and Stavanger – and other oil-centric towns and cities around the world.

What will the up-shot of this price crash be? Perhaps there are lessons from history?

Price crash of 1986

The chart here (from the FT [Link]) – shows the oil price from 1983-88.

What changed after the crash of the mid-eighties? In my view, the most significant change in Upstream came in Exploration. New techniques and rapid advances in computing power reshaped whole departments of geologists, petrophysicists, geophysicists and started the movement towards integrated sub-surface modelling and simulation which we have today. What happened was a rapid reduction in finding costs and increases in certainty (pre-drilling) – leading to tools that provide deep understanding of deposits and accurate ways to manage reservoir dynamics.

This article in Computer World, May 1987 (page 89) [Link] is subtitled “Cost-cutting prompts Sohio to centralize and integrate systems” – this is the world I remember joining as PDP-11/34’s were being replaced by VAX 11/785 and Micro-Vax’s and sun microsystems 4/330’s, and if you didn’t know how to configure a Versatech plotter and UNIRAS libraries you weren’t much use. That was the start of, and without any research, I’d estimate that the cost on a job-by-job basis has fallen 90% and enabled far more technical reservoirs to be identified and quantified – leading to access to new territories, new financing mechanisms and new development concepts.

The imperative in this period was reservoir optimisation which quickly came to the fore with all manner of rapidly applied innovations in complex drilling, remote sensing and reservoir simulation. Exploration took a back seat for a while with lots of analysis and “banking” of reserves which were not really developed until the mid-noughties.

Price crash of 2015

So what’s going to happen this time around? Like 30 years ago I see that there will be a rush to take cost-reduction actions now, and there will be a period of reflection where new design patterns and new dominant designs will emerge ready for the next upswing.

Low-cost operational interventions

I think we will see the case for low-cost operational interventions. More temporary fixes for failing plant with minimum workable solutions applied to prolong life until shut-down (either permanent shut-down, or a large overhaul). This will include various forms of integrity management solutions – this might be an interesting year for companies like Wood Group, Intertek, ICR, AIBEL etc.

New design pattern for operations

Rapid cost reduction in the North Sea must now be centred on reducing operations costs. This means increasing the throughput of existing plant and reducing production-loss due to outages. This will mean accurate measurement and control, real-time plant-simulation and low-cost approaches to maintenance. Like we saw consolidation of exploration departments and the emergence of integrated geoscience teams we will see the rise of joint operations teams (concepts that have existed for a while but never fully had their impact). We will also see the rise of computer simulation and integration of data across domains – with predictive scheduling of parts and preparation of work-orders so that crews will be able to prioritise work and maximise the value generated from each shut-in period.

The impact of this will be a reduction in lower skilled workers and an increase in on-shore data-savvy planners. There will need to be more instrumentation and remote sensing, data communication and integrated dash-boarding of data. Emerging from this will be discovery of key, high-impact monitoring and intervention techniques and dominant designs for way-of-working will emerge. Much of this work will rely on enabling technology which closely resembles “The Internet of Things” [Link] [Link]

Unlike the many previous attempts at “field of the future” and “intelligent operations” – and a hundred other buzz-words – this time there is real imperative to make this change.

New dominant designs for development

After the 1986 price crash lots of back-office work was undertaken in exploration but drilling was at much lower levels for more than a decade. This time it’s going to be field development that takes the pause. According to the FT, WoodMac reports that over $400bln of projects are now delayed or cancelled. [Link]

I’ve talked to a number of operators this year and no-one is worried about designs taking longer. Everyone wants projects to cost less so that they can have a better chance of attaining FID. I predict that the dominant designs emerging from new design patterns and the remote sensing and operations will be incorporated into these designs in an integrated way. Taking asset data streams (and interpretation of them) into the integrity and barrier models from day one. This will lead to substantially lower cost operations.

With the retirement of the old-guard in both operations and development I expect to see younger engineers who embrace new technologies take major decisions. These are engineers that “get” the bigger picture and are frustrated by the pace of change. Their intervention will lead to more computerised monitoring, more adoption of technology like sub-sea processing, differing materials and techniques and wider acceptance of what were – five years ago – things not considered “proven” – or at least, not proven to the satisfaction of the old-guard.

Break your business CIA style

So Ian Stewart at Deloitte comes to my rescue today with a pointer to an excellent piece of research.

During the Second World War the CIA published a how-to-guide for citizen saboteurs living in occupied countries. Among various ways to disrupt machinery etc. were some excellent examples of how people were advised to prevent the smooth running of business and stopping progress. Many of the pieces of advice remind me of the practices I have witnessed first-hand being business as usual at oil and gas operators.

Including advice for Strategic Management:

(1): Insist on doing everything through “channels”. Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

(2): Make “speeches”. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.

(3): When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration”. Attempt to make the committees as large as possible – never less than five.


(5): Haggle of precise wordings of communications, minutes and resolutions.


(7): Advocate “caution”. Be “reasonable” and urge fellow conferees to be” reasonable” and advoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

And Advice for Operations

(1): Demand written orders


(4): Don’t order new materials until your current stocks have been virtually exhausted, so that the slightest delay in filling your order will mean a shutdown.

(5): Order high quality materials which are hard to get. If you don’t get them argue about it. Warn that inferior materials will mean inferior work.


See more and gasp in admiration of the foresight here: [Link] – the full manual is available direct from the CIA here: [Link]

Working Hours Vary by Country

An interesting update came my way today courtesy of the Deloitte Monday briefing from Ian Stewart.  In my post about starting your own consultancy  [Link] I said that a consultancy would normally expect you to account for 2000 hours a year.  Below are some of the average worker stats by country. Just interesting I thought, I must work too hard !

In 2014 the average Mexican worker put in 2,228 hours, equivalent to a 43-hour working week with no holidays. The average German worked 1,371 hours in 2014, 39% less than the average Mexican. French workers worked 1,473 hours. Contrary to popular perceptions, Greece features among the countries where people work long hours (2,042 hours). By-and-large people in nations with higher levels of productivity work fewer hours, enabling Germans – who have among the highest productivity in the world – to produce more in a relatively short working week.

Collaboration reduces costs?

There has been a lot of hand-wringing around collaboration recently. For instance Paul Goodfellow Manager of UK Upstream at Shell said companies working in the North Sea need to learn from other industries on how to work together [Link]. Quite which industries he is talking about I’m not sure, also I am not sure what type of collaboration he’s looking for.

Worryingly for me there seems to be a focus on input costs. For instance one quote in the article stands out: “work with the supply chain on how to collaborate and get common purpose whilst driving waste from the system and driving unit costs down”.

When I analyse situations like this with clients I encourage them to take a view on both industry and supply chain, and be clear about the distinction. In Shell’s case their industry consists of other oil and gas operators. MMO companies, Scaffolding providers, helicopter operators and a myriad of other companies are part of the supply chain. They belong their own set of industries. Of course many companies supply services in more than one industry – so I need to consider them both in relation to their “competitors” and their own internal structure.

Here are three ways that cost can be removed:

  1. Industry collaboration between operators – to increase standardisation or share resources
  2. Adoption of new technology and methods
  3. Drive new processes to reduce unnecessary steps

These actions can increase efficiency which I define as the ratio of units of output to units of input. Assuming that output remains constant then efficiency comes from reducing system costs by removing labour or materials. This will increase the profit available for distribution among companies within the supply chain.

Reducing costs within the supply chain does not necessarily mean that Shell will see their input prices reduce – the location in the value-chain where profits are captured is subject to other factors. One model to explain how profit is captured was described by Michael Porter [Link]. Supply chain collaboration is, of course, important to organisations such as Achilles backed by my friends at Hg Capital [Link]. They set out some of their views on the issue here [Link].

In a commodity industry – like crude Oil and Gas production – there is little that producers such as Shell can do to change the selling price of their product (of course OPEC might have a different opinion [Link]). To protect profits producers need to reduce cost. At the moment operators seem to be forming committees to squeeze the supply chain. They are also laying off employees to cut overhead. I don’t see any action from Operators to collaborate with each other to reduce their own structural costs. Claims that they are seem to be a joint-ganging-up to encourage the supply chain to collaborate and reduce prices. That’s different.

Oil and Gas UK have stated that the North Sea needs to reduce costs by 40% within 5 Years or face very tough times indeed. Stephen Marcos Jones, Oil & Gas UK’s business development director, said: “Companies are having to make tough decisions on their capacity during the downturn and are individually taking measures to improve efficiency. However, co-operative working across the industry … can also help deliver the cost and efficiency improvements required to secure a long-term future for the UKCS.” [Link]

This quote from the Shell article highlights the inefficiency in buying within a single operator:

One very enterprising supplier came forward and said we’ve got a great piece of quick erecting scaffolding, but we don’t understand why you haven’t been picking it up. The reason was because they were trying to work at various front-line levels of the organisation and it wasn’t important to one individual, because they didn’t know the totality of what we were spending on that service. When they came in through the strategic contracting team and demonstrated to the facility managers and made the decision there and then and we’re in the process of deploying it across every facility and rig we have in the UK sector.”

I feel this is an example of an operator missing new technologies due to their internal bureaucracy and inefficiency. My clients can tell me about literally hundreds of examples of this type of behaviour. The reality of course is more complex. When I ran the technology investment process at a major operator I found that the cost (and risk) of scaled change was such that it can easily outweigh the demonstrable benefits delivered from a new technology. Therefore this type of change can be slow and the results can be counter intuitive.

So in summary to drive out costs we must answer the following:

  1. What time scale and magnitude do we need to work to (some are long-term structural and will take many years to deliver, other are tactical and can reduce Op-Costs quickly)
  2. What can we do to reduce the cost within the supply chain, and how will we ensure that those costs flow to the prices we are charged?
  3. What can we do to reduce costs within our industry by collaboration and standardisation
  4. What can we do to reduce our individual costs by simplifying what we do, eliminate unneeded activity and increase work-rates?

Of course, as you would expect, the professional services firms have opinions on this. Their approach and advice is nuanced and reflects many of the same themes. Some of what they are thinking can be found here: PWC [Link], Deloitte [Link] and [Link], EY [Link], Bain [Link] and KPMG [Link].

Incidentally the word-cloud image at the top of this post contains many of the words I’d expect to elicit from a group of oil executives. It comes from VOTE – an organisation based in New Orleans – the Voice of the Ex-Offender. It is a grassroots, membership based organization founded and run by Formerly Incarcerated Persons (FIPs) in partnership with allies dedicated to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against of FIPs. [Link]. Goes to show that many of the issues that surround collaboration are human ones and not things specific to our industry.