The View

Caught in oil’s crossfire: non-Opec, non-shale producers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 9:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2015, 12:45am

The biggest losers from the current price war between  Opec and the shale producers seem set to be producers outside the Middle East and North America caught in the crossfire.

Expensive production from the North Sea, Canada’s oil sands, offshore mega projects, weaker African and Latin American members of  the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and frontier exploration areas around the world are all being squeezed  by the price slump.

According to oilfield services company Baker Hughes, the number of rigs drilling for oil outside North America has fallen by over 200, or about 19 per cent, since July  last year.  

Rig counts have fallen in every region, with 28 fewer  in Europe, 47  in the Middle East, 33 in Africa, 66 in Latin America and 34 in Asia Pacific.

Proportionately, the hardest hit regions have been Europe and Africa, where more than 30 per cent of rigs operating in the middle of last year have since been idled.

But the slowdown is broad-based, with big downturns in countries as far apart as Mexico, India, Turkey, Brazil, Iraq, Colombia and Ecuador.

Major drilling contractors including Transocean, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes have all reported a sharp drop in international business.

Schlumberger told investors in July it expected exploration and production spending outside North America to fall by 15 per cent  this year.

The company’s second-quarter revenues fell 5 per cent compared with the first three months of the year as a result of customer budget cuts and the need to reduce contract prices to retain business.

With major international oil companies including Chevron and Shell announcing further cuts in their capital budgets, the downturn will persist throughout the rest of  this year and likely well into  next.

“Looking ahead to the second half of 2015, we expect … unfavourable market dynamics to persist,” Baker Hughes warned its shareholders last month. “In North America, we don’t anticipate activity to increase while commodity prices remain depressed … internationally, rig counts are projected to continue to decline led by many onshore and shallow water markets.”  

Slumping oil prices and a fight for market share are often portrayed as a straight fight between  Opec and the North American shale drillers.

But the biggest losers, who will bear much of the adjustment to a new market balance, are likely to come from the rest of the world.

Shale has been disruptive precisely because it has emerged in the middle of the cost curve, more expensive than giant fields in the Gulf, but cheaper than megaprojects, and directly competing with the North Sea and Canada.

Production from  mature shale plays  is also more predictable and lower risk than some frontier exploration areas and ageing provinces.  

Market rebalancing is therefore likely to leave both the Middle East Gulf producers and North American shale drillers with unchanged or even enhanced market shares.

Production slowdowns will have to come elsewhere, where risk-adjusted returns are poorer and investment requirements are higher.

The process appears to be well underway. The International Energy Agency predicts non-Opec  oil supply will be flat  next year, after growing 2.4 million bpd  last year and one million bpd  this year.

Most of the initial slowdown will come from a plateauing of shale production after huge gains of more than one million bpd in both 2013 and  last year.

But in the medium term, non-Opec  non-shale output looks set to be squeezed hard by the investment downturn.

With international marker Brent back down to just US$50 per barrel, from over US$100 at this point last year, many non-shale, non-Gulf projects are under  greater threat than before.

Saudi Arabia appears to be calculating low prices will encourage enough demand growth while restraining non-Opec non-shale production, enabling the market to absorb resumed Iranian exports  next year without having to cut Saudi Arabia’s own production.

That’s a high-risk strategy, but the downturn in international drilling and sharp cuts in exploration and production budgets suggest it might just pay off.