Drill Baby Drill……….

Well, I know I said in November that oil prices might spike in the short term, and that we should not discount the prospect of war – but even I didn’t expect $140 oil by March and gas prices up to 800p per therm.

Tragic for those caught up in the mess but for the oil industry it will be profitable in the short run, fill your boots while you can.

Prepare now for the future

But what about the long term? Does it make sense to invest money now when you won’t be reaping the reward until a few years have passed?  Will prices stay up, or will they crash when everyone else who invests comes on stream together?

That dynamic will drive the short- and medium-term market, it’s the classic conundrum of all cyclic markets – lurching from over to under capacity as industry players second guess each other and end up rushing for the exit at the same time. Right now Mr. Putin has just shouted fire in the cinema.

It’s a classic theme that I come across often with my clients. How to balance short term money making with investments that are both speculative and, even when they work, won’t pay off for years. The other position is equally bad – like Wily Coyote running over the edge of a cliff, running fast in the short run looks smart until, one day, it isn’t.

Invest through the crisis

This crisis will be bad, but can lay the foundations for energy security through transition

The industry just got a second window, don’t waste it. Windfall profits can fund transition, which will create the energy security craved by the politicians.

Have a read about energy security, the Russians and the Saudis in my post from 2016 [LINK]

How to think about transition strategy

The clients I work with are addressing energy transition strategy. It’s a hard one for the indsutry veterans because – well old dogs and new tricks. It should be easy right now – but perversly it just got a lot harder . 

In 2014 markets were booming and then suddenly they weren’t as prices fell (due to oil oversupply from shale – or so some thought). Some companies hunkered down and waited for customers to come back but they didn’t. I suspect customers will rush back now. The old strategy is about to make a lot of money and be “successful”. Waiting for customers to come back seems like it might have been the right decision (as it was in 1984 and in 2000).

Wait for the chorus of “I told you so” – as they chase the road-runner into unsupported fresh air.

This is the moment to reap the profits from oil and gas and invest in energy transition. This will not last, this is borrowed time, we are in the end game.

So what’s the plan?

Between 1945 and 2005 the world agreed a “dominant design” for the creation and distribution of energy and set about expanding capacity. I suspect that we will see another stable configuration from 2050 onwards where expansion proceeds along agreed lines with technologies that currently either don’t exist, or are uneconomic at scale. But frankly that’s a bit far away to be relevant, there is a process of transition that’s going to unstablise the energy industry until then.

My advice to clients is to consider building a strategy that addresses dimensions of time, space and focus-area.

There are 3 distinct periods to consider.

  • Now->2030
  • 2030->2040
  • 2040->2050

In each of these periods there must be a strategy for making the most of moment, but also one that prepares for the next period.  

The immediate question is: how to balance making money between today and 2030 and how to lay foundations for success in 2030+.

The boundaries have S-Curves

If history is a guide, the handover between periods will be based on technology adoption. It starts as a gradual “more of this, less of that” approach and then accelerates through an S-Curve of adoption. I suspect the steepest part of the first curve will be immediately before and after 2030.  For a more in depth discussion as to why, I recommend reading the late Paul Geroski, Evolution of New Markets (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Evolution-New-Markets-Paul-Geroski/dp/0199248893). I wish I could still call him – I’d ask what he thinks about energy transition, he’d really have loved this.

Options for each period

Option 1: Milk it now for as long as you can

Option 2:  Innovate and be a leader and drive the change

Option 3:  Wait for the change and then buy the emerging winners.

All are valid approaches but what you do to implement them is different, so a choice should be made and made explicitly. It is possible to blend elements of all three, but make sure incentives don’t get in the way.

Geography matters

My clients operate internationally, so there is the question of where to focus. Europe, America, Asia, ME will transition at different times and at different speeds. It might sound silly but don’t discount “outer-space” as a geographic area, because within this time frame, space energy will be “a thing”.

Focus Area

Once you have selected the periods you are addressing, the approaches you want and the geographies that matter to you, then what are you going to do?

One framework available, is to answer: Who, What and How. Who are your target customers, what will you offer them, and how will you deliver (and charge). That’s for the next post.

Mood music changes

So BP have gone back to the future. Beyond Petroleum all over again.

When I started the Bestem Network 7 years ago I focussed it on issues surrounding the Oil and Gas industry – specifically how to use technology and reconfigure operations to develop and produce projects at lower cost and risk.

Last drop or leave it in the ground?

The Wood report was flavour of the month and much of my work centred around MER-UK (Maximum Economic Recovery). One of the categories of posts on this site was (and still is) labelled “Last Drop”; it focussed around the changes that would be required to make it possible to cooperate economically to achieve the maximum aggregate profit for the industry. It tackled things like tying together infrastructure, developing small pools and draining the basin over the long-haul and not to optimise short-term or locally.

While I never expected that the industry would return to 2012 levels, I did expect that it would come back and stabilise at a more “normal level”. I was concerned that the “big-crew-change” would mean that young people would not have the knowledge to operate our much-needed oil and gas infrastructure. I had no idea that they would reject oil and gas completely. That thought occurred to me in 2019 when I visited London Tech Week.

In 2017 I wrote that exploration was really of waning interest [Link] but I didn’t expect one of the primary reasons was that we didn’t want any more hydrocarbons.

Contrast this recommendation from Wood in 2014: “Government and Industry to commit to a new strategy for maximising the recovery [of oil reserves] in UK Continental Shelf] with the growing idea that we might leave reserves in the ground.

I wonder what the report on maximising the economic recovery from the whaling industry said.

Could the oil industry just disappear?

Despite sounding the drum for the 4th Industrial Revolution and arguing (nicely) with Patrick Von Pattay ( I was the more conservative because I thought that oil and gas really wouldn’t change fundamentally). It appears I may have underestimated things.

A very successful (and foresighted) businessman recently told me that the plastic-straw industry had simply ceased to exist within six months of the revelations of the damage it did to the oceans in the TV programme the Blue Planet. This chap now takes into account environmental position before bidding for work from a company – not for ecological reasons. He wants to direct effort to customers that will remain in business!

Surely we can’t do without oil?

Of course, there are oilmen who will tell you that the world economy cannot work without hydrocarbons – their case has always been that growth will come from renewables, and that demand would be flat. I tend to agree. But what if we’re wrong?

Here are a couple of thoughts for this (exceptionally) rainy Feb morning.

  • Solar is the cheapest form of energy production already. It’s getting cheaper and more efficient at a blistering rate.
  • Petroleum products might become classified as a dangerous substance – think asbestos or CFCs, what would that do to demand and price when supply, licensing, permitted uses and public perception of the product changes.
  • Microeconomics – which is what many businessmen optimise for – operates within Macro economic boundaries. Macro economics are formed by policy, are political and by nature are ideological. Think about: Soviet Russia, China, Thomas Pickety, Trade Wars, Sanctions. Things you think are “real” business decisions can be usurped by political will in an instant.
  • The IPCC report on climate change was issued in 2007, the Paris agreement was 2015 we seem likely to go beyond this and as a world embrace Net Zero sooner rather than later. For insight listen to Myles Allen on the life scientific (BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000fgcn )

Engineering will still be important

With all this doom and gloom around it’s easy to get despondent. But, here’s the good news: if the world decides it wants to change then this will call for difficult and complex engineering, delivered in remote locations across political divides on an unprecedented scale over a mulit-decade period.

Not only will we need to invent all sorts of new technology for carbon reduction, energy efficiency, generation, storage etc. etc. We will need to deploy them all and decommission all the legacy assets.

There are not many companies that can muster the amount of engineering talent, capital control processes, large scale international project management, logistics construction that will be required. In fact, I can think of two that could – Energy and Shipping. And of course, if the world doesn’t change, oil and gas will have a renaissance.

Under all circumstances the people inside the oil industry will have skills that are needed and which are hard to replicated at scale. The only loss of value will come from those who can no longer exploit their control of underground deposits of oil in the future, and those that must pay for legacy assets and impact from the past.

Fundamental engineering practice still matters

With all the digital wizz (which I fully support) it is important not to lose sight of the practical situational requirements, human organisation and civil society that we need to enable the “platform” in which the innovative start-ups, electric cars and energy transition can happen.

Basic engineering discipline still matters, and is sometimes overlooked by hand-waving innovators and wet-behind-the ears management consultants.

You probably know about the 737-Max flight-stability software and instrumentation scandal. Recently, I read an article on Boeing where it says they are now re-inspecting new plane fuel tanks because they have found rags and tools left in them by construction workers: https://www.flightglobal.com/air-transport/boeing-orders-737-max-inspections-after-fuel-tank-fod/136819.article

It’s a sobering thought when flying :- if the wrong culture takes hold and introspective and solid processes are overtaken by gregarious and extroverted leadership.

The world still needs good engineering.

Ubique & Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt

O&G – Exploration and industry 4.0

In an earlier post [LINK] I briefly introduced the four areas of upstream value chain that could benefit from the 4th Industrial Revolution. Here I put forward some potentially controversial points about how this may (or may not) affect Exploration.

First of all my definition: Exploration is concerned with finding and appraising new deposits of Hydrocarbons trapped under the surface of the earth. It’s the identification of these that I am addressing here, not how (or if they can be) exploited.

There have been many advances made in technology in the previous 25 years that have transformed the process of finding deposits. The two most notable have been around the use of remote sensing through Seismic Data, and the accuracy with which deviated wells can be drilled. Seismic acts like an x-ray into the composition of the rocks, while new wells use precision direction control and combine it with analysis of real-time feedback from rock measurements surrounding the drill bit to let operators steer the trajectory in real-time.

Many of the advances that have been harnessed could legitimately be described as pioneering in the technology of sensing, big-data, simulation and automation. These are the key technologies underpinning the 4th industrial revolution. Exploration got there first.

In my work with small companies seeking investment I continue to see a slew of new start-ups with fancy seismic algorithms claiming to be able to spot even more obscure sources of previously unidentified hydrocarbons. Maybe they work. Who cares?

In my view the major gains from the 4th Industrial Revolution have already been captured in exploration. Perhaps we are close to entering an era of more stable oil prices – driven by: elasticity of supply from shale; abundant reserves released from both tight reservoirs and hydrates; and managed demand through smart technology, electric drive-trains, renewable generation and batteries. So the commercial pressure to find obscure resource pools may have gone.

In the North sea there are over 300 pools of hydrocarbons already discovered but not yet developed [LINK]. So the question is: even if the new technologies are successful will they have a significant impact for operators? I suspect the answer is no.

New algorithms and systems may provide marginal gains around the edges of existing fields and provide additional in-fill development opportunities. They may reduce the number of people in G&G dept 10%. Commodification of techniques (as happened for 3D animation) may see the demise of some companies and job-roles. But I don’t think it’s going to provide a revolutionary impact. Of course, I may be wrong.

If I am right, this suggests that there will be two main opportunities for companies providing technology here – either to provide an “add-on” to the main interpretation platforms (Petrel, OpenWorks) and then sell small numbers of seats to operators in special circumstances, or attempt a wholescale assault to replace the platforms already in place. Neither of these are revolutionary for operators and result in minor cost reduction by pitting service company against service company.

I think the 4th industrial revolution is likely to provide only a small impact on the dynamics of this part of the value-chain. There may be a displacement of revenue from one software vendor to another, there may be some marginal in-fill development opportunities that will add more elasticity to oil supply (and help to further stabalise prices) but neither of those are going to be massive nor revolutionary. I think that the 4th Industrial Revolution gains have been captured already – AI, auto-pickers, attribute statistics, simulations, integration, cloud, geolocation, computing power in the hands of individuals – the main technologies are already in place. Gains from here-on-in will be marginal.

There is one thing that may change my view, however. If this happens it will have a profound impact and swing power towards the national resource owners. If these innovations are adopted at the level of the nation state things may change.

National Data Banks were established in the 1990’s (example LINK) to hold archives of seismic and well data and make them publicly available. These may get a boost.  Cloud technology and on-line AI-based mining-algorithms may change the way that license economics work by de-risking exploration and encouraging competition. If this is combined with a stable oil price there is a potential recipe for reduction in the incentives needed for exploration companies. That could change the economics and the structure of the discover, farm-down, refinance, develop and keep carried-interest process that is used today.

Energy security and geopolitics

This big topic was brought to mind during a recent breakfast with Capt. Mike Paterson (Royal Navy retired). In the oil and gas industry we are often at the mercy of large political forces playing out. This shows up in both commodity prices and physical security. Employees of few other businesses are as acutely aware of this as they are in Oil and Gas.

You don’t need me to tell you the current oil price nor the speculate about the reasons, but it is clear that there are national interests at play. Is Saudi Arabia waging a price-war to drive unconventional sources of production out of business? Is there some form of cross-state agreement to undermine the Russian position? Are there ulterior motives for allowing Iran back into the market? What will be the effect on South America and African politics? What will the destabilisation of Iraq and the Levant states mean?

Here is interesting view: CNBC saudi’s and Russians game of bluff.

CBBNIboW4AAAbKs

While it is interesting to ruminate on what the price will be, there is really nothing that I (and probably you) can do about it, and predicting which factors will combine with global economic growth and low-carbon technologies to influence Oil prices is something I’m not qualified to talk about. When I need to find an opinion my first port of call is my friend Delia Morris who is now with RigZone.

There were many theories around why OPEC (namely Saudi Arabia) would [refuse to cut production]. I am of the opinion that it was to make better sense/better predict the behavior of the US shale players (force them to consolidate, not necessarily to put them out of business). Frontier plays (like the Arctic and ultra-deepwater plays) and Canadian oil sands (which require huge upfront capital costs) I think were targets (by OPEC) to forcibly put them out of business. And we are seeing that play out now. Delia Morris quoted in Vice.Com [Link]

 

When Mike Paterson gave a talk on security at one of last year’s networking dinners, he provided a simple framework that every business can use to structure their thinking about emerging threats.

Where this really matters is for security of workers and assets within countries. That’s where the Oil and Gas industry and national security agencies start to align interests. There is are very intriguing analysis sets available from the military which provides many insights, this for instance:

The Baltic Sea is one of the busiest shipping areas in the world; the volume of maritime transportation navigating it has doubled in the last 20 years. Energy shipments from Russia are particularly important and the entrance to the Sea, through the Danish Straits, is one of the world’s eight strategic oil transit chokepoints. The Nord Stream gas undersea pipelines from Russia to Germany are also an important strategic element in the BSR. Energy dependencies within the BSR vary, with nations having different strategies, and most importantly, varying degrees of dependence on Russia. It should be remembered that the Russian economy is reliant on the energy market. Significant reductions in demand may, therefore, have a major effect on its economy, and potentially have a destabilising effect on regional security. “Future Security Challenges in the Baltic Sea Region” [Link]

There is a very thoughtful piece by Anusar written under the pen-name PolicyTensor which is available here [Link]. In this piece written in 2012 concerned why prices were so high, interesting to re-read this in the light of the current prices.

Oil prices will be volatile but your business may not be directly driven by them, you might be driven by the response of your customers – their response may be driven by technical or revenue-maximisation considerations – or, quite likely, financial constraints which drive decisions that do not maximise economic recovery, but do protect equity value in the face of debt covenants.

Watch out though – Mike Paterson alerted us to the correlation between grain prices and the Arab Spring. Perhaps low petroleum-state revenues will lead to reduced public spending which might lead to popular uprisings and increased instability. Unstable times ahead.