More evidence this is the offshore “recovery”…

I was going to write this anyway today and then looked at the oil price as I was leaving work… down 2.7% at the time of pixel… The graph above comes from the Dallas Fed blog which makes this salient point and helps explain why:

Given current market prices, U.S. shale production will continue growing this year. Indeed, a recent report by the International Energy Agency highlighted that shale production is likely to be a major driver over the next five years. This does not rule out the possibility of major oil price movements, but it does point to a strong tendency that oil prices will be range bound in the near future.

Read the whole thing. Shale has structurally changed the oil industry and fundamentally changed any realistic scenarios for an “offshore recovery”.

Contrast that with the investment boom in shale: If you want to see how the whole ecosystem of companies and innovation are working in a harmony to make US shale more efficient, deepen the capital base, and thereby work in a virtuous circle then this article from the Houston Chronicle that showcases a GEBH project to turn flared gas into power in the region is a great anecdote:

Baker Hughes is using the Permian Basin in West Texas to debut a fleet of new turbines that use excess natural gas from a drilling site to power hydraulic fracturing equipment — reducing flaring, carbon dioxide emissions, people and equipment in remote locations…

Baker Hughes estimates 500 hydraulic fracturing fleets are deployed in shale basins across the United States and Canada. Most of them are powered by trailer-mounted diesel engines. Each fleet consumes more than 7 million gallons of diesel per year, emits an average of 70,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and require 700,000 tanker truck loads of diesel supplied to remote sites, according to Baker Hughes.

“Electric frack enables the switch from diesel-driven to electrical-driven pumps powered by modular gas turbine generating units,” Simonelli said. “This alleviates several limiting factors for the operator and the pressure pumping company such as diesel truck logistics, excess gas handling, carbon emissions and the reliability of the pressure pumping operation.”

More capital, greater efficiency, and capital deepening. It is a virtuous circle that increases productivity and economic returns and is the signal for firms to invest more. It is a completely different investment dynamic to the one driving offshore projects at the moment.

Shale productivity.png

The above graph from the IEA makess a point I have made any times here: there is no real cost pressure in shale beyond labour (which will drop in the long run). Shale is all about productivity and cost improvement driven by mass production, something the US economy has as an almost intrinsic quality. The cost improvements in offshore are solely the result of over-capitalised assets earning less than their economic rate of return (i.e. oversupply) and is clearly not sustainable in the long run.

That is why firms with a low cost of capital are vacating fields like the North Sea to firms with a higher cost of capital: one requires steady investment and scale, the other investment is a punt on a shortage and price inflation. [A post for another day will be on how on earth some of these larger investors actually get out of the North Sea.]

This IEA data also tells you why this is the offshore reocvery:

IEA 2019 investment mix.png

The IEA is also forecasting overall spending to increase just 6%. So offshore just isn’t getting investment at the margin that will drive fleet utilisation and expansion. In company accounts this is showing up as depreciation significantly outpacing investment and is a constant across the industry. The economics of offshore are such that profitability is dictated by marginal demand (i.e. that one extra day of utilisation at a higher rate) and this graph shows the industry built a fleet for a far higher level and the only realistic prospect here is for structurally lower profitability. Given the high capital costs of the assets this is going to take a long time for the oversupply to work out.

For manufacturers (i.e. subsea trees) the recession is generally over, although not for Weatherford, but if it floats nothing but a wall of oversupply and below economic pricing and therefore sub economic returns is the logical consequence of this industry structure and market dynamic.

The hope of a massive demand boom kept banks from foreclosing and led hedge funds and other alternative capital providers putting money into assets that were (and are) losing cash but seen as “valuable” in the future. Slowly it is becoming apparent there is no credible path to anything other than liquidation for many companies still in business.

Rates will slowly rise, and so will utilisation levels, but only to economic levels i.e. covering their cost of capital in a perfectly competitive market. Absent a demand boom liquidity slowly, and then quickly, vanishes. And that is finally starting to happen now. For example the McDermott 10.25% 2024 bonds, already very expensive, were trading at well below par today implying a 13.5% yield, in effect locking them out of the unsecured credit market completely (and in reality all credit markets). A restructuring beckons. MDR will not be the only one by any stretch. Many rig companies will do a Chap 22 and a wave of supply companies in Europe and Asia are uneconomic and simply cannot survive under realistic financial assumptions.

Slowly the overcapacity in the industry will work its way out to more economically sustainable day rates with higher utilisation levels in a smaller global offshore rig and vessel fleet. But it won’t be a return to 2013, it will be a return to a far lower profitability level despite the smaller fleet, higher prices, and less time and utilisation risk taken smaller companies. There will be a complete wipe-out, almost without exception, of investors who backed offshore “recovery” theses of asset backed companies and an inability of these companies to access funding almost at any price levels. Theories about assets recovering to values implied by book value will be realised for what they are: a fantasy no serious person could believe.

But a far more rational industry and market will emerge. The only thing that could change the dynamic outlined above is a massive demand boom, and the graphs above show you why that isn’t going to happen.

IEA global upstream investment 2019.png

Random weekend energy thoughts… Productivity, costs, and DSV asset values…

Permian shale and tight production in the third quarter was 338,000 barrels per day, representing an increase of 150,000 barrels per day. Let me say it again: this is up 80% relative to the same quarter last year. As many of you will realize, that’s the equivalent of adding a midsized Permian pure play E&P company in a matter of months.

Pat Yarrington, CFO, Chevron, on the Q3 2018 results call

John Howe from UT2 posted the photo above on Friday and kindly allowed me to reproduce the it. The Seawell cost £35m in 1987 and according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator the same vessel would cost ~£94m in 2018 in real terms. In 1987 the USD/UK exchange rate was ~1.5 so the Seawell cost $53m and inflation adjusted around $132m (at current exchange rates).

Compare that with the most recent numbers we have for a new Dive Support Vessel (“DSV”) of a similar spec: the Vard 801 ex Haldane that was contracted at $165m (sold for $105m).  That price is roughly 25% above the cost of the Seawell in real terms. You get a better crane and lower fuel consumption but in productive terms you can still only dive to 300m (and no riser tower) and I doubt the crane and the lower fuel consumption are worth paying 25% more in capital terms.

These prices don’t reflect how much the MV Seawell pushed the technological boundary when she was built when and recognised as one of the most sophisticated vessels in the world. The major £60m/$75m upgrade she received in 2014 highlights again the myth that old tonnage will naturally be scrapped as an iron cast law is wrong, but more importantly highlights the technical specification of the vessel has always been above even a high-end construction class DSV (clearly visible in the photo the riser tower must have been seen a major technological innovation in 1987) and yet it is more economic to upgrade than build new for a core North Sea well intervention and dive asset. Helix has invested in an asset that brings the benefits of low-cost from a different cost era to a new more uncertain environment.

The reasons for price inflation in OSVs are well-known and I have discussed this before (here): offshore vessels are custom designed and have a high labour content which is not subject to the same produtivity improvements and lower overall cost reduction that manufactured goods have (Baumol Cost Disease). The DP system and engine might have come down in real terms, but the dive systems certainly haven’t. Even getting hulls built in Eastern Europe and finished in Norway has not reduced the cost of new OSVs in real terms (you only have to look at Vard’s financial numbers to see the answer isn’t in shipbuilding being a structurally more profitable industry).

That sort of structural cost inflation, a hallmark of the great offshore boom of 2003-2014, was fine when there was no substitute product for offshore oil. Very few OSVs were built in a series (apart from some PSV and AHTS). But the majority of the vessels were one-off or customised designs with enormous amounts of time from ship designers, naval architects, class auditors (i.e. labour) before you even got to the fit-out stage. Structural inflation became built into the industry with day-rates in charters etc expected to go up even as assets aged and depreciated in real economic terms because demand was outpacing the ability of yards to supply the tonnage as needed.

The same cost explosion happened in pipelay but did allow buyers to access deeper water projects. Between 2003-2014 an enormous number of deepwater rigid-reel pipelay vessels were built (in a relative sense) with each new vessel having even more top tension etc. than the last; but the parameters were essentially the same: they were just seeking to push the boundary of the same engineering constraints. The result was (again) a vast increase in real costs but one that was partially offset by advances in new pipe and riser technology that allowed uneconomic fields to be developed. Now Airborne and Magma are working on solutions that could make many of these assets redundant. Only time will tell if those offshore companies who have made vast investments in pipelay vessels will have to sell them at marginal cost to compete with composite pipe if the solution gets large-scale operator acceptance (i.e. Petrobras). However, if composite pipe and risers get accepted by E&P companies on a commercial scale those deepwater lay assets are worth substantially less than book value would imply (I actually think the most likely scenario is a gradual erosion of the fleet as it is not replaced).

But now there is a competitor to offshore production: shale. And it is clearly taking investment at the margin from offshore oil and gas. And shale production is an industry subject to vast economies of scale and productivity improvements. The latest Chevron results make clear that they have built a vast, and economically viable, shale business that added 150k barrels per day of production at an 80% growth rate year-on-year:

Chevron Q3 2018 Permian .png

To put that in perspective when Siccar Point gets the Cambo field up and going they will be at 15k per day and it will have taken them years (and the point is they are a quality firm with Blackstone/Bluewater as investors ensuring the do not face a financing constraint).

What makes shale economic is the vast economies of scale and scope available to companies like Chevron. E&P companies producing shale are adding vast amounts of production volume every year and theories that they are not making money doing this are starting to sound like Moon photo hoax stories. E&P companies throw money and technology at a known geological formation and it delivers oil. The more money they invest the lower the unit costs become and the greater the economics of learning and innovation they can apply at even greater scale.

Offshore has a place but it needs to match the productivity benefits offered by shale because it is at a disadvantage in terms of capital flexibility and time to payback.The cost reductions in offshore that have been driven by excess capacity and an investment boom hangover, these are not sustainable and replicable advantages. In offshore everything, from the rig to well design and subsea production system, has traditionally been custom designed (or had a significant amount of rework per development). When people talk of “advantaged” offshore oil now it generally means either a) a field close to existing infrastructure, or, b) a find so big it is worth the enormous development cost. Either of those factors allow a productivity benefit that allows these fields to compete with onshore investment. But to pretend all known or unknown offshore reserves are equal in this regard is ignoring the evidence that offshore will be a far more selective investment for E&P companies and capital markets.

One of the reasons I don’t take seriously graphs like this:


…and their accompanying “supply shortage” scare stories is that the market and price mechanism have a remarkably good track record at delivering supply at an economically viable price (since like the dawn of capitalism in Mesopotamia). Modelling the sort of productivity and output benefits that E&P majors are coming up with at the moment is an issue fraught with risk because 1 or 2% compounded over a long period of time is a very large number.

As an immediate contra you get this today for example:

(Reuters) – The oil market’s two-year bull run is running into one of its biggest tests in months, facing a tidal wave of supply and growing worries about economic weakness sapping demand worldwide.

Which brings us back to DSVs in the North Sea, their asset values, and the question of whether you would commission a new one at current prices?

Last week the OGA published an excellent report on wells in the UK and its grim for the future of UK subsea, but especially for the core brownfield and greenfield projects in shallow water that DSVs specialised in. And without a CapEx boom there won’t be a utilisation boom:

OGA wells summary 2-18.png

Future drilling is expected to pick-up  mildly, although it is unfunded, but look at this:

EA well spud.png

Development Drilling.png

So the only area in the UKCS that isn’t in long-term decline is West-of Shetland which is not a DSV area. CNS and SNS were the great DSV development and maintenance areas and the decline in activity in those areas are a structural phenomena that looks unlikely to change. Any pickup is rig work is years away from translating into a Capex boom that would change the profitability of the UKCS DSV and small project fleet.

DSV driven projects have become economic in the North Sea because they are being sold well below their economic cost. Such a situation is unsustainable in the long run (particularly as the offshore assets have a very high running cost). The UKCS isn’t getting a productivity boom like shale to cover the increased costs of specialist assets like DSVs and rigs: E&P companies are merely taking advantage of a supply overhang from an investment boom. That is no sustainable for either party.

So while the period 2003-2014 was “The Great Offshore Boom” the period 2015-2025 is likely to be “The Great Rebalancing” where supply and demand both contract to meet at an equilibrium point. Supply will have to contract because at the moment it is helping to make projects economic by selling DSVs below their true economic worth, and the number of projects will have to contract eventually because that situation won’t last. E&P companies will need to pay higher rates and that will simply make less projects viable. You can clearly see from the historic drilling data that a project boom in shallow water must be a long time coming given the lags between drilling and final investment decisions.

The weak link here in the North Sea DSV market is clearly Bibby Offshore (surely soon to be branded as Rever Offshore?). As the most marginal player it is the most at risk as marginal demand shrinks. Bibby, like other DSV operators on the UKCS, serves an E&P community that is facing declining productivity relative to shale (and therefore a higher cost of capital), in a declining basin, where the cost of their DSVs is not reducing proportionately or offering increased productivity terms to cover this gap. Both Technip and Boskalis were able to buy assets at below economic cost to reduce this structural gap but the York led recapitalisation of Bibby still seems to significantly over value the Polaris and the Sapphire – particularly given implied DSV values with the Technip purchase of the Vard 801 (TBN: Deep Discovery).

DSVs made the UKCS viable and built the core infrastructure, but they did it in a rising price environment where the market was based on a fear of a lack of supply. One reason no new North Sea class DSVs were built between 1999 the Bibby Sapphire conversion in 2005 is because the price of oil declined in real terms but the price of a DSV increased meaningfully in real terms. A new generation of West of Shetland projects may keep the North Sea alive for a while longer but this work will be ROV led. A number of brownfield developments and maintenance work may keep certain “advantaged” fields going for years that will require a declining number of DSVs.

North Sea class DSV sales prices for DSVs are adjusting to their actual economic value it would appear not just reflecting a short-term market aberration.

#structural_change #this_time_it_is_different #supplymustequaldemand

Shale versus offshore: SLB version

In 1984, a cellphone weighed two pounds, was nothing but a telephone, and cost $10,277 in today’s $. Today, a smartphone is also a camera, radio, television set, alarm clock, newspaper, photo album, voice recorder, map, and compass, and cost as little as $99…

Human Progress

A lot of press being made about the Schlumberger comments regarding shale reaching its production limits. Coincidentally(?) The Economist has a leader and an article on the same this week. I don’t have the technical knowledge to get into the Parent/Child well productivity debate  but I note this is not the first time the death of shale productivity has been forecast (particularly eagerly by the offshore community for obvious reasons).

What was less reported was this nugget from the same SLB results:

Offshore Angola, Sand Management Services deployed a combination of technologies for Total E&P Angola to save more than $100 million and gain an estimated 1 million BOE of incremental production in the Kaombo deepwater development. Combining the OptiPac* openhole Alternate Path‡ gravel-pack service with OSMP* OptiPac service mechanical packers enabled the customer to achieve target production with six wells instead of the planned eight. This combination of technologies enabled effective zonal isolation of complex stacked reservoirs in one field, while in another field the water shutoff capability of the technology enabled accelerated production. [Emphasis added]

SLB appears to have developed a technology that has reduced the number of wells by 25%? That will signficantly lower the cost of the development but at the cost of rig and vessel days as well as lower subsea well orders if applicable in other developments.

This is the future of offshore. More work onshore and less offshore proportionately where the costs and risks are significantly higher. Productivity increases like this, not based on selling high capital equipment below cost, will be important for the industry.

I am also not convinced shale productivity is decreasing. The declining demand (and margins) faced by SLB and HAL could well be the result of larger E&P companies internalizing costs and driving them down as they seek to “mass produce” shale oil. We shall see… The BHGE rig count was at levels not seen since 2015 last week.

There is actually a much bigger change going on in the supply chain. In the old offshore geographically dispersed fields and rigs made using contractors like Schlumberger the logical option from both a cost and skills point-of-view. But when you are committed to a region like the Permian (or Bakken etc) you have critical mass and it makes sense to internalise those skills and capabilities.

Shale has dropped significantly in cost terms and a plateau of some sort should be expected. But shale is a mass production technology and the slow relentless grind of an annual 1 or 2% productivity input is still a real issue for offshore where each development is to a certain extent custom designed and therefore subject to limited economies of scale. That is true for the rigs and vessels throughout the supply chain as much as it is for the field lay-out and wells. Offshore needs companies like SLB to produce innovations as described above but the future of offshore is having less assets do more for similar outcomes.

Capping the price of oil… The Visible Hand of US managerialism…

It is impossible to understand where I am coming from on this blog it without grasping the implications of the graph above (also used here). The graph from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas earlier this year highlights the level at which it is profitable for E&P companies to drill new wells. Clearly this is well below the current oil price. The price signal is strong: drill more wells.

Shale oil production is not resource constrained. There is no shortage of rocks to frac or sand to feed the beast. Pioneer estimate there is in excess of 250 years supply in the Permian basin alone at significantly higher production rates than today. There might be a shortage of rocks to frac at an economically efficient price but that answers a different question. The limiting factor on shale is not resource availability but the technical and organisational constraints associated with its growth. The constraints shale faces in the US are organisational: raising capital, training people, building pipelines and new rigs, all the challenges of maximising a known process. Over time no economy in the world is more adept at solving these challenges than the US economy. Chandler called it The Visible Hand and he was right.

This is a massive change from the recent era of offshore domination. Shale is a mass production process where unit costs are constantly being driven down. Offshore was a custom process: each field development was a one-off, each rig and vessel (largely) were one-off’s, each tender was a one-off. The whole chain was geared to custom solutions and while it was efficient at high volumes it is not a deflationary process. The Brazilian pre-salt finds while enormous in size led to a cost explosion throughout the industry and not one it has fully recovered from. The Harsh Environment UDW rigs while significantly more capable than jack-ups did not reduce per barrel costs they just helped us access a scarce resource that we didn’t think we could get from anywhere else. We were happy to pay the price.

It is a very different world now. It is all well and good for the $FT to claim “Shell hails bounceback towards deepwater drilling” but the story carries a more modest message:

“Deepwater can compete if not demonstrate higher returns because of fundamental cost reduction,” he said. “Break-even prices in deepwater — we are now talking $30 per barrel.”…

“It’s great to have both in the portfolio and we are growing our shales business . . . but in terms of sheer cash flow delivery our deepwater has significantly more cash flow potential,” said Mr Brown.

We are into deepwater at $30 a barrel Shell are saying, but we like the competitive tension of shale and we will keep our options open. The upside is in other words capped.

I think the price of oil is therefore capped in the long-run, and I stress that because an industry run with minimal stocks and a highly interconnected supply chain is always going to have short-run volatility, at the rate at which the US shale industry can organise and finance itself and supply marginal production. Eventually the oil price will be capped at what these producers can profitably supply to the market because over time they will continue to grow production significantly. This is an industry with very low barriers to entry and a wealth of subcontractors who can supply kit, and while the offshore rig count has had a fairly minimal improvement globally over the last year there is an almost .9 correlation to the oil price and the US land rig count:


There is a good article here as well about how in the long-run refineries can process various types of sweet/sour and light/heavy. Again there will be a short-run transition for some refineries who cannot handle light sweet crude but the processes are known and it is simply a cost-optmisation exercise between cheaper light-sweet crude versus more expensive heavy-Brent (for example).

This is clearly a long transition but it strikes me as an inevitable one. US shale production will over time increase as the capital intensity and investment deepens. The huge capital and organisational requirements this will entail ensures this is not an overnight process, but it is a continuous process and one where the inertia now seems unstoppable. This is why I strongly believe that the offshore industry demand curve has lost its correlation with the oil price and a far more complex demand line needs to be plotted for companies.

Offshore’s golden age post 2000 simply didn’t have this competitive supply source, and certainly not one with a major deflationary bias, to compete with. Every strong recovery in global demand led to a straight linear investment in offshore as the only marginal source of supply… ‘there is no easy oil’ people used to say as cost inflation took hold of the offshore industry. But now there is and not only that it appears to be getting cheaper to access it as well.

Weekend shale read… The Red Queen for offshore…

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol

Applied to a business context, the Red Queen can be seen as a contest in which each firm’s performance depends on the firm’s matching or exceeding the actions of rivals. In these contests, performance increases gained by one firm as a result of innovative actions tend to lead to a performance decrease in other firms. The only way rival firms in such competitive races can maintain their performance relative to others is by taking actions of their own. Each firm is forced by the others in an industry to participate in continuous and escalating actions and development that are such that all the firms end up racing as fast as they can just to stand still relative to competitors.


Derfus et al., 2008


Stressing output is the key to improving productivity, while looking to increase activity can result in just the opposite.

Paul Gauguin


The IEA has done a review of shale companies financing and for those hoping that they represent some sort of ephemeral phenomenon that will pass as soon as the junk bond market closes, well rates decline, or some other exogenous event arises, they are likely to be disappointed. It’s a short read and well worth the effort. I called shale an industrial revolution the other day and the IEA post is a good short precis on how this came about in financial stages.

SPE also has had some good articles recently on the constant productivity the shale industry is using to drive down costs. This one on Equinor for example:

One of the drawbacks of the status quo is that it requires small armies of field personnel to interpret SCADA data and then adjust set-points to get pumping units back into optimal operating ranges. This manual process can consume half-an-hour per well to complete; downtime that quickly adds up in a field of hundreds.

“What we are talking about is having the machine do that entire workflow,” Chris Robart, Ambyint’s president of US operations said…

The Bakken project comes after a pilot that included 50 of Equinor’s wells, which saw a net production increase of 6%—considerably larger uplift figures were seen from those wells suffering from under-pumping.

Or this one dealing with Parent/ Child wells, which a few months ago seemed to be the latest reason to explain why shale wasn’t a sustainable form of energy, but the industry has solved part of this problem through “cube development”:

But the prize for coining the term cube development goes to Encana Corporation, which says the strategy has increased early well productivity in one of its Permian fields by 70% over the past 2 years. Despite the term’s growing popularity within engineering circles, some companies continue to use different terms such as QEP’s “tank-style completions” for what is seen as the same general practice.

I don’t understand the technology but I have faith that day-in day-out new techniques are being developed that will drive down the costs of extraction and production in the shale industry. You need to be a technical pessimist, which in this age is hard, to believe this productivity direction cannot continue (see Citi here).

Over time the offshore industry will change to compete with shale. The economic force of competition will ensure this. But in order to compete it will need to reduce the cost and time of being offshore dramatically and focuson on high-flow low lift cost projects. Something well underway in the Gulf of Mexico at the moment.

There are huge moves in offshore to improve productivity: all righty focused on spending lowering cost and reducing time to first oil. Some, but by no means all, contractors focused on engineering are starting to see improved profitability. But the sunk investments made in offshore vessels, jack-ups, and rigs have largely had their equity wiped out in the last few years and this is enabling the offshore industry to compete on price and risk in terms of capital allocation from E&P companies. For as long as that is it’s only, or major, competitive advantage all that beckons is an industry that slowly runs down its capital base until project cost inflation can rise. Something that becomes ever more distant the more competitive shale becomes. I realise it’s a bleak prognosis but there isn’t much else on offer.

Oil supply shortage? Really?

“We’re able to do, I would say, 40% more per dollar of activity than we did 4 or 5 years ago at $100 oil”

Bob Dudley on BP’s Q2 2018 results.

When you are told there might be a supply shortage you need to understand how much model risk there is in these sort of forecasts. The IEA graph in the header, a variant on the new peak oil theme, being used as the rationale for why a “recovery” for offshore may be just around the corner, doesn’t show the output implications of the cost deflator.

Bob Dudley is saying that BP are getting 1.4x output for each dollar 4-5 years after the “great oil price crash” of 2014. That ~$500bn of expenditure in 2018 buys you what ~$700bn did 4 years ago (roughly what was being produced in 2013?).

This just isn’t consistent with a some sort of “snapback recovery” for offshore that people try and credibly speak of (and that some business models are based). Mean reversion only works as a theory when the underlying mechanics haven’t changed. The offshore supply chain needs to be realistic about the implications of this sort of comment that is clearly being translated into E&P company CapEx plans. Whether the offshore industry believes it or not this is the new narrative and reality in E&P companies and capital is being allocated accordingly.


Relentless shale …

However, there is one area I want to highlight today and that is our progress on capital efficiency. You will recall in 2016, we outlined organic capital expenditure guidance of $13-14 billion per year out to 2021. In February of this year we said 2018 would be $12-13 billion. Today, I feel confident we will be at the lower end of that range.

This progress has created the space for us to invest in this opportunity in the Lower 48, while continuing to hold our organic capital spend at $13-14 billion per year. This is a story of improving capital productivity.

Bernard Looney, CEO Upstream, BP

It was a big week in the shale world last week with BHP selling their shale assets to BP. BP has stated it will divest itself of $5-6bn of assets to help fund this move. What will be really interesting is where the divestments will take place? I expect a further sell off of offshore assets as the overall BP portfolio is weighted further to these sorts of high productivity potential assets. BP made the following comment that they had:

[i]ncreas[ed] offshore top quartile wells from around one-third in 2013 to almost two-thirds this year.

Expect ones outside that category to be classed as “non advantaged” and be up for sale.

The same week the IEA published the graph above showing that for the first time Free Cash Flow from shale will be positive for the first time (see graph above). I never got that worried about this metric because US capital markets have a history of funding loss making companies with high capital needs (Uber being an extreme example) provided there is some sort of rationale and pathway to profitability. But this will only help the “shale narrative” attract further funding.

It is hard to overstate the macro effects of the seismic change in the oil industry but also the world economy, the IMF recently calculated that the shale revolution cut the US current account deficit by 1.4% and on a price weighted basis by 1.75%:


The shale revolution isn’t just higher prices for the end product: it is a real story of increasing productivity. There is an outstanding story about this on Reuters (appropriately tagged under “Technology” read the whole thing):

Today, BP operates more than 1,000 shale wells that produce mostly natural gas in the Haynesville basin, which straddles eastern Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.

It has used the data from its automated wells to create a streamlined system that farms out maintenance to a fleet of lower-cost contractors. The firm now orders up repairs much in the same way a homeowner uses a mobile app to hire a maintenance person or a passenger summons an Uber for a ride.

BP puts repair work out for bid to pre-approved contractors, who then compete for jobs. Each contractor is rated after completing the work, and those with high rankings have a better chance of getting hired again.

Welcome to the future of offshore. This focus on process, a hallmark of mass production, has translated into dramatically lower costs:

BP Productivity lower 48.png

This is a genuine productivity improvement and not the result of someone selling a rig or vessel below its true economic cost. At some point the offshore industry is going to have to accept the scale of this industry on its ability to price at the margin and get the utilisation required to make a large number of assets operative.

The shale industry at the moment is one of ever increasing process of capital deepening. This productivity improvement is happening at a time when the rig companies are reporting record rates and utilisation for Super Spec land rigs and associated services. The shale supply chain are managing to increase CapEx and get price inflation while helping their customers lower costs and increase productivity. Yes, there are constraints for take-out in the Permian at the moment, but they will clear in 12-18 months, well before a major offshore project can be completed and a timeframe with enough visibility to make Boards think twice before sanctioning a raft of mega projects.

As these new investments bear fruit, and the capital base has deepened, you can expect to see unit costs lowered even more, particularly where capital replaced labour (i.e. pipeline distribution versus trucking). This is a virtuous cycle. If you don’t think this can happen in commodity industries over the long run look at food production and prices which have followed a similar process of capital deepening and productivity despite demand increasing massively:


(I am not predicting the end of cyclicality in oil prices merely highlighting that it is not a given that they must increase, particularly in the short-run).

I think this points to the fact that a “recovery” in offshore will be a far more muted and affair than in previous cycles. If anything oil companies are smart enough to realise that competiton is the most time tested method of ensuring competitive prices and the competition for capital allocation between onshore and offshore works to their advantage. It is very hard to see price inflation creep into the supply chain when overcapacity exists in offshore and productivity improvements so achievable in onshore.