The trade-off between shale and offshore investment and the effects on marginal demand…

The rising oil price is about to test one of the major tenets of this blog: namely that there has been a structural change in how oil is produced and that a sharp comeback in offshore demand, as has been seen in previous cycles, is extremely unlikely. At the moment all the data appears to be pointing to the ever increasing importance of shale over offshore for marginal investment dollars, and in fact the higher price may be encouraging shale investment over offshore as smaller E&P companies can meet volume increases through cash generated and open capital markets and larger E&P companies take a margin hit but keep CapEx commitments steady and not expanding offshore much beyond long signalled commitments.

It is also worth noting that this recent price rise does not seem related to demand factors:

physical markets for oil shipments tell a different story. Spot crude prices are at their steepest discounts to futures prices in years due to weak demand from refiners in China and a backlog of cargoes in Europe. Sellers are struggling to find buyers for West African, Russian and Kazakh cargoes, while pipeline bottlenecks trap supply in west Texas and Canada.

At the moment Permain is trading on a discount to WTI of between $7-12 per barrel given transportation constraints via pipeline out of the region. Something like 1.5m barrels per day opens up by March next year though so this is a temporary problem. The process of capital deepening for shale is also occuring as refineries in the region change their intake capacity for the ‘light sweet’ crude that currently needs to be mixed with heavier Brent. This will take time, and cost billions, but every year this capacity slowly increases with each maintenance cycle at the large refineries, incentivised by the large discount to Brent.

PVM has reported that as the oil price has rised Texas’s energy regulator issues 1,221 drilling permits in April, up around 34% from a year ago. The BH rig count added another 10 rigs to the US oil fleet last week but also another 2 offshore rigs, but that only brought the offshore count back to a year ago, the same for the Gulf of Mexico (+1); whereas the land rig count is up ~19% from a year ago.

BH rig count 11 May 2018.png

Again this leads directly to higher production. In June alone US shale production will add the rough equivalent of a Clair Ridge to their output levels:


The US shale industry is the single biggest transformation to the oil and gas industry since the pre-salt fields were discovered and developed in Brazil. Those developments led to an extraordinary rise in the price of tonnage and changed the entire offshore supply chain. It is simply not logical to accept that a change as big as this in volume terms is occurring in the US and that it will not have similarly profound impact on the offshore industry.

The correlation between the oil price and the US rig count and the oil price and US production levels has an r-squared of ~.6 according to IHS Markit (data below) if anyone is interested. That means each $1 increase in the price of oil leads to a .6 increase in the rig and production volumes.


Whereas for offshore a strong increase in the price of oil over the last twelve months has seen this happen to the jack-up and floater count:

Jackup and rigs 11 May 18.png

Source: Pareto Securities.

Jack ups and Floaters demand has been effectively static over the past year. The workhorses of future offshore production increases and demand simply haven’t moved in a relative sense. The cynic would argue their correlation to the oil price has been reduced to zero (which clearly isn’t true), but it shows how time delayed this recovery cycle is for the front end of offshore. But the flat demand for jackups and floaters is exactly what most subsea vessel and supply companies are saying: demand has bottomed out but over supply and a lack of pricing power persists. The good explanation of why so many OSV and subsea companies claim to be doing record tendering and their  continued poor financial performance lies in the data above.

What I call (sic) “The Iron Law of Mean Reversion”, which seems to substitute for thoughtful analysis, can be seen in this slide:

Transocean Iron Law.png

The heading is simply a logical fallacy. There is a load of evidence to say shareholders are more comfortable with lower reserves now and less offshore production is being sanctioned because the money is being spent on shale.

At some point the disconnect between companies like Standard Drilling, buying PSVs at pennies in the dollar and keeping them in the active fleet, and the general oversupply will be realised. In the CSV/ Subsea fleet things are no different: Bourbon, Maersk, and other vessel owners state they are building up contracting arms, yet again all they do in total is keep supply high for a relatively undifferentiated service and erode each others margins (and spend a lot on tendering). The service they operate has no real differences to the ROV companies like Reach, M2, ROVOP, IKM ad infinitum and other traditonal vessel contractors like DOF Subsea. Sometimes they have a good run of projects… and other times…

Bourbon Q1 2018 Susbea.png

Project work is lumpy but Bourbon stated that the project market was especially poor versus suppy. In the old days boats were scarce and enginneering had a relatively small mark-up which the mark-up on the vessel accentuated and flattered. But getting a CSV with a large deck and crane now is so average it is no wonder everyone claims to be tendering: E&P companies are clearly getting them all to bid to reduce project costs. There is clearly more work being done on vessels at the moment, but there is a limit as shown above, and no project delivery companies have any pricing power.

The larger contractors appear to be winning a greater porportionate share of work at ever lower margins as TechnipFMC recently showed:

Technip Q1 2018.png

Given Technip is now winning as much work as it burns through demand has clearly hit the bottom. But even it has to lower margins to win. The commodity work, where you grab some project engineers and a couple of ROVs on a cheap boat (often IRM related), is clearly going to have all the profit bid away for a long time, whereas construction work still has value even in the downturn; but it entails serious risk and range of competencies that are beyond the realms of dreaming about for the smaller contractors.

This relationship between the rising price of oil and marginal demand for shale verus offshore will make this recovery cycle for offshore different to any other. IRM is important in the short-run, but the fewer wells and pipes laid now will ensure not only is future construction work lower but so to is the installed based. There will clearly be a recovery cycle, demand is above last year’s levels and subsea tree orders are well ahead of 16/17 lows, but there is clearly huge competition at the margin for E&P investment dollars in offshore versus onshore which is a competitive dynamic the offshore industry has never had before.

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