North Sea

IRAQ-OIL

Oil sprays from a well at Tuba oil field in Iraq  © Getty Images

Oil is now clearly a cyclical commodity that is in a period of over-supply. According to recent commentaries from the International Energy Agency, the excess of production over consumption was as much as 3m barrels a day in the second quarter of this year, which is why prices have fallen. The question for producers, consumers and investors is: how long will it be before the cycle turns back up?

The initial caveat, of course, is that the “normal” oil market could be overturned by political decisions at any time. The Saudis, instead of greedily trying to maximise their market share and imposing huge losses on others, could decide that the stability of the region, and of their own kingdom, would be better served by cutting production and settling for a new equilibrium. There is a chance of that, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and the Saudis are under huge pressure from other Opec members but there is a mood of rigid arrogance in Riyadh which suggests that the necessary climb down will not come easily. What follows assumes that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and his son the deputy crown prince stick to their current policy.

What then drives the cycle ? Read more

  © Getty Images

For investors who thought the situation in the oil sector could not get worse, the last few weeks have come as a bad surprise. In the US, West Texas Intermediate prices have slipped below $40 a barrel and on Monday Brent crude fell below $44. There is no obvious sign yet that the bottom of the cycle has been reached and the latest negative data from China adds further downward pressure. The next casualty of the falling price will be corporate dividends.

Much attention has been paid to the implications of lower oil prices on countries such as Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria which depend for the bulk of their national income on oil. For them, the economic and political implications are serious. As we saw at the end of the 1980s, not just in the former Soviet Union but also in Opec states such as Algeria, a heavy fall in prices undermines the social contract between governing elites and the wider population. Both those countries look vulnerable now, as do a range of others including Angola, Brazil and Nigeria. In all those cases the impact of a price fall compounds existing problems. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that one or more of these nations will see a regime change before the end of the year. Read more

The next few months will be a critical period in the history of the North Sea. After 50 years which have seen 42 billion barrels of oil and gas produced, the province could now see a significant proportion of activity brought to a premature end. Fields which are uneconomic at current prices could be closed down and then decommissioned. Much of of the oil and gas which remains ( between 12 and 24 bn barrels ) could be left behind, undeveloped and valueless. For some fields, such as Brent, the exhaustion of reserves makes decommissioning inevitable. For others, however, we should be finding a way to maintain operations and to ensure that the resources in place can be developed when prices rise again. Read more

As Martin Wolf has noted in the Financial Times, world oil prices have fallen 38 per cent since the end of June. A Martian listening to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement would have no idea of this. For consumers lower oil prices can have positive effects but for mature producing provinces they are very damaging and could be fatal.

Mr Osborne proposed a cut in the supplementary charge on oil company profits by 2 percentage points from 32 per cent to 30 per cent. There is to be a “cluster” area allowance to help the development of small fields which sit next to each other. The ringfence expenditure supplement is to extended from six years to 10. Wow! That will really keep the investment flowing. Read more

BP oil platform in the North Sea  © Reuters

After 40 years of production that far exceeded original expectations, the North Sea oil and gas industry is in serious jeopardy. At the beginning of the year, there was a degree of optimism following Sir Ian Wood’s report and the establishment of a new, more interventionist regulator considered capable of driving a further wave of activity. But with the fall in oil prices over the past four months, the mood has changed dramatically. Read more

A cold wind of economic reality is blowing in from the North Sea. The days in which offshore oil and gas production could provide easy revenue to support public spending are over. Development of the area’s remaining reserves will only thrive if the tax regime is completely rewritten, with the tax take drastically reduced. Politicians in London and Edinburgh should accept this reality rather than pretending that we still living in the glory days of the 1980s. Read more

The news of another excellent year for investment in the North Sea will come as a surprise only to those who do not understand the dynamic relationship between economics and technology.

The original predictions were that North Sea oil and gas – certainly in the UK sector – would be exhausted by 1990. A strict depletion policy in Norway might keep production running for a few more years. That was the received wisdom of the 1970s.

Now, 56 years after the first gas was produced at the West Sole field, the prospect for the whole province is for at least two more decades of production. Total output is down but there is a long tail. Resources which were once thought inaccessible are now being brought onstream thanks to advances in drilling and reservoir management technology. Read more