Oil hurtles down the slippery slope
As weak Chinese demand persists and OPEC refuses to budge on production levels, oil prices continue to plummet. The world's leading producers are now preparing for the possibility that a barrel of brent crude will dip below $20. What does it mean for Irish exploration companies and their investors, and the oil beneath the Irish Atlantic and Irish Sea? Sarah McCabe reports.
Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30
The oil industry has entered its deepest downturn since the 1990s. After the world's largest oil-producing coalition, Opec, pledged to retain production levels, despite global fears of overproduction that could persist into next year, oil prices continued to fall to new lows this week.
The price of a barrel of benchmark brent crude dipped below $40 for the first time since February 2009. Prices have dropped more than 60pc since June 2014.
So what does this mean for Ireland?
For energy consumers, it is good news. Cheaper oil means lower bills for both industry and households. The economy benefits as companies enjoy bigger profits and consumers have more money to spend.
For the country's oil and gas investors, it is just another turbulent chapter in a difficult story.
Exploration off the coast of Ireland has a long, expensive and largely fruitless history.
With more than €3bn spent over the past 45 years on drilling over 150 exploration and appraisal wells, just two major gas finds have been commercially exploited - Kinsale, where production is tailing off, and Corrib, which is only now finally beginning to bear fruit.
Many firms have identified offshore geological areas that are believed to be rich in oil- and gas-bearing features but most are unproven and drilling results to date have been disappointing.
Now, as the price of oil continues to plummet, investors in these firms face even longer delays and the increasing risk that their investments might run out of money altogether.
"The fall in commodity prices has been catastrophic for a lot of explorers," says David Horgan of Petrel Resources. "Even those that have cash are trading at deep discounts.
"In Ireland it has, for sure, caused delays. In any downturn, people stop making decisions. When prices are as volatile as they have been recently - and will probably continue to be - boards defer everything.
"Today's oil prices are kind of irrelevant to the companies currently active in Irish waters, because it will be at least two to five years before what they are doing brings oil to market," explains Ronan MacNioclais, partner at professional services firm PwC.
"But the problem in the meantime is that these companies have to borrow and the industry is facing a lot of negative sentiment. It has taken the buoyancy out of the financing market."
Several companies have delayed previously announced drilling plans off the coast of Ireland, like Cairn Energy and Providence Resources. In November, Providence got another two-year extension on its Barryroe oil field. Development of its other most promising asset, at Spanish Point off the south-west coast, has also been delayed.
Some have abandoned their plans altogether, like Kosmos Energy, a major by Irish standards. The private-equity-backed, Dallas-based company, which has a $2bn (€1.8bn) market capitalisation, arrived in 2013 and farmed into two licence blocks in the Porcupine Basin.
Drilling was supposed to begin in 2017. Kosmos looked for a partner to help split the costs of the project, but was unsuccessful. In September, it announced its intention to pull out of Ireland completely in favour of focusing on its African assets.
Shell has also relinquished its remaining Irish offshore exploration projects.
An oil and gas survey released by PwC in July found that due to the fall in oil and gas prices, 48pc of respondents intended to defer or significantly curtail exploration investment in Ireland.
That represented an about-turn on the previous year, when 91pc said they intended to maintain or increase their level of investment here. Just 18pc rated the outlook for the Irish oil and gas sector over the next two years as favourable, compared to 54pc in 2014.
Half of respondents said recent reductions in the oil price had had a very substantial impact on their business, while a further 38pc described the effect as significant.
"Globally, investors are being more careful, choosing only low-cost or low-risk projects, and Irish oil exploration is neither of those things. Of course, investor interest will return as prices rise but it's difficult to predict when that will happen," says MacNioclais.
Seasoned oil and gas investor Tom O'Gorman feels investors in Irish exploration companies are at the end of their tether.
"What a lot of these companies now need is a safe pair of hands to hold onto valuable assets and work that has already been done until the market recovers," he says.
O'Gorman is looking into forming a holding company to buy distressed oil and gas assets.
Such a model has been successfully used by private-equity funds to buy up North Sea oil assets, although these are more attractive because they are more likely to bear fruit and thus carry less risk.
"Irish oil investors have had such a bad ride and unfortunately it's going to be a long wait," says O'Gorman.
However, others are more positive. For Providence Resources chief executive Tony O'Reilly, the availability of financing is already improving.
"In our case, like everyone else, we did see the supply of finance slow. But that is definitely changing.
"We are now seeing a variety of companies express interest - because now is the time to act to benefit from low costs.
"We have seen a noticeable change in investor interest in the fourth quarter, a big uptick."
The fact that costs plummet when oil prices fall, as boards cull every ounce of excess weight and suppliers drop their prices to stay in the game, is a serious silver lining for explorers.
"Costs have fallen massively - 50, 60, 70pc cost reductions on rigs and equipment and services costs," says O'Reilly.
"A couple of years ago, we were looking at costs of €500,000 a day for rigs. Now we are seeing costs of €100,000 for the same rigs for contracts beginning in 2016.
"For anyone who is investing now in assets that are still a few years away from production, this value can't be underestimated.
"You are capturing huge cost savings now and will be coming into a rising market when you start producing.
"We have been assuming that you need a price of around $60 a barrel to make a reasonably-sized discovery in the Irish Atlantic economical" says David Horgan. "But that might be as low as $40 a barrel, depending on how far you can push down costs.
"When the price of oill falls you can drive down your costs dramatically."
Also encouraging was the licensing round that closed in September, covering all of Ireland's major Atlantic basins.
It attracted a record 43 bids from 17 different companies with applications from majors, mid-size and smaller companies.
This is by far the largest number of applications received for an Irish offshore licensing round to date.
Applications are currently being evaluated by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and decisions on the granting of options will be made in the first quarter of 2016.
"The expectation is that there is a significant amount of oil and gas still to be found off the coast of Ireland," says PriceWaterhouseCooper's MacNicolais.
Four-fifths of respondents to the PwC July survey were optimistic about the level of petroleum still to be discovered, particularly in the Porcupine Basin area, a massive region of the west coast that is relatively underexplored in comparison to the Irish Sea.
Providence Resources is one of the companies that took part in the November licensing round.
"It was an absolute step-change for Ireland," says O'Reilly. "What made the biggest difference is that we have a lot more data now about what is under the water off the Irish coast - and we understand it and can interpret it better.
"The Government also deserves a lot of credit for how it ran the process and sold Ireland so well."
O'Reilly was in Islington, London this week for the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain's Prospect Fair, a showcase and networking event for exploration and development. "Ireland was being talked about as a bright spot, as an emerging exploration hotspot," he says.
For David Horgan, the surge in interest in Ireland's most recent offshore licensing round had more to do with problems elsewhere.
"I'm not necessarily sure that it was because Ireland suddenly started looking attractive - it's because the rest of the world got uglier," says Horgan. "You have instability all over the world at the moment.
"Ireland is still a costly and high-risk place to look for oil and gas. On the plus side our tax regime is significantly more attractive than a lot of places and there is certainty there because in Ireland tax rates cannot be changed retrospectively.
"But people are definitely bullish on Ireland. We spent a lot of time talking to majors between 2010 and 2014 and they are interested in Ireland."
OVER A BARREL: THE OIL Q&A
How much have oil prices fallen?
The decline has been pretty spectacular. Just 18 months ago the price of a barrel of brent crude oil, the main international benchmark, traded at around $110.
This week it has traded close to $40 per barrel since Monday when it fell to its lowest since 2009. Goldman Sachs analysts say it could fall as low as $20 a barrel.
It all boils down to supply and demand. The trigger for the price collapse which started last summer was a realisation that new oil production, particularly from new US shale wells and Iraq, was expanding much faster than expected.
In the United States domestic production has nearly doubled over the last six years, pushing out oil imports that need to find another home.
At the same time an expected strong rise in demand on the back of global economic growth has failed to materialise due to faltering performance by key markets like Europe and China.
The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel of Middle Eastern oil producers has traditionally tried to balance the market by reducing output in time of low oil prices. However, this time it has chosen to try to drive its US shale rivals out of business by increasing production.
In November it pumped more than any month in the past three years.
Why is this bad?
It's not, for most of us. Low oil prices mean cheaper energy bills for consumers and businesses and can spur economic growth. But extended periods of low oil prices also restrict investment and development. Eventually this could lead to a shortage of oil, which could push costs up again to unsustainable levels.
"We estimate this year that investments in oil will decline more than 2pc. But, perhaps even more importantly, this decline will continue next year as well," said Fatih Birol the executive director of the International Energy Agency. "In the last 25 years, we have never seen two consecutive years where the investments are declining and this may well have implications for the oil market in the years to come."
What about the oil companies?
Oil producers are hurting badly. Higher-cost producers in Canada and Brazil, as well as the United States, are likely to fall victim to low oil prices faster than most exporters.
But Ireland only has two offshore projects actually in production - gas fields at Corrib and Kinsale. The price of gas has not fallen as dramatically as the price of oil.
Most companies active in Irish waters are explorers, who are still testing the viability of potential oil and gas field. For them, the problem is finance - the availability of funding has dried up.
When will prices recover?
Oil is unlikely to return to $80 a barrel before the end of the decade, the IEA says. For the next two decades after that, it expects only tepid demand growth, as alternative sources, especially renewables, expand their share in the energy mix.
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