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.

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.