Slashing Costs Alone Won't Create a Future for the UKCS

Here's the thing, cutting costs is all well and good, indeed getting rid of waste and unnecessary expenditure is essential to create a platform for growth, but without growth, there is no future for the oil and gas business in the UK. Without growth then next year's production will decline and more costs need to be cut and the year after that even more, until one day the only option left is to shut everything down.

Everyone knows the UKCS cost base had become overheated. It was inevitable when the oil price was so high. Operators were more focussed on delivering production than the cost of doing that and more importantly, activity levels followed the oil price and so contractors had to add capacity, be it in drilling rigs, supply vessels or staff. Most contractors are canny folk, they have been through many cycles in the business, so they only add capacity when there are great profits to be had. Even then they resist the temptation, but when their peers are running ahead of them in capturing market share they capitulate and start building rigs and vessels and hiring folk on better and better deals.

Then the music stops.

So the industry cuts everything in sight. Every contract that can be cancelled is; every cost is re-examined to see if it is worth spending the money. The whole industry goes through a torrid process of redundancies, contract renegotiations and budget reductions. No one wants to do it, but no one has a choice. It is essential to get the industry fit for a lower price environment.

But as cuts are made, the seeds of growth and new opportunity are often discarded along with the waste.

Exploration grinds to a halt, every licence is re-examined to see if it is worth holding. Anything that doesn't have a clear and tangible value is put on the market, but there aren't many buyers around so even decent prospects end up relinquished.

Meanwhile the great and the good set up task forces to do this that or the other, and some times those task forces can actually accomplish something but very often an awful lot of talk doesn't make a darned bit of difference. They are worth doing as there is much to be gained by standardising and simplifying the way the industry goes about its business, but by definition you can't innovate by committee.

So where do the new opportunities emerge from, how does growth happen when every major is postponing projects and every independent struggles to keep within its banking covenants? That means there is no money to invest in the development projects that drive growth.

Jim with a beard, or possibly a detail from "Croesus Receiving Tribute from a Lydian Peasant", by  Claude Vignon, 1629

Jim with a beard, or possibly a detail from "Croesus Receiving Tribute from a Lydian Peasant", by  Claude Vignon, 1629

The answer is the growth comes from the side and below. New capital doesn't come from the long established energy players, it comes from companies and investors who have been on the sidelines as the oil price crashed, companies like Ineos who are now buying into oil and gas production at a low point in the cycle. Mr. Ratcliffe will be as rich as Croesus.

That's a great example of capital coming in from the side with its eyes wide open for growth opportunities. 

But what do I mean by from below, well I mean entrepreneurs and small companies with great ideas that haven't yet been seized upon by the big players. Companies like Hurricane Energy with their fractured basement play and our own company, The Steam Oil Production Company Ltd, with our plan to develop over 300 mmbbls of heavy oil in a steam flood project on the Western Platform (more on that another time). Or companies like Encounter Oil who have been promoting the Bagpuss & Blofeld prospects in the Outer Moray Firth, ironically with oil probably in fractured basement that would come out a treat with a steam flood.  These are the seeds of growth and the opportunities that the big players should be offering to nurture and support, for these are the new ideas that can revitalise the UKCS.