Big Oil Revives Offshore Exploration

Spending on exploration is growing as oil majors are now putting the security of oil and gas supply and higher upstream profits ahead of investment in lower-return low-carbon energy solutions. 

While the U.S. supermajors haven’t ventured into wind and solar, Europe’s biggest oil companies spent three years convincing investors that they would not grow oil and gas production further and invest more in renewables. Until last year’s energy crisis and skyrocketing commodity prices shifted the focus back to oil and gas supply. 

Energy Security – Keyword For Growing Oil And Gas Supply 

Discipline in investment continues to be a major theme among Big Oil, but investment in exploration is rising as the majors expect much higher returns from large offshore projects compared to low-single-digit returns from investment in renewables and other clean energy solutions. 

The recent strategy shifts from BP and Shell signaled oil and gas production at these firms hasn’t peaked – as promised back in 2020 – and will rise this decade to ensure adequate oil and gas supply. 

Some institutional investors have already expressed disappointment at the pivot from BP and Shell, who doubled down on oil and gas in their updated strategies earlier this year. 

Shell said last month it would grow its gas business and extend its position in the upstream.

“In our Upstream business, Deep Water has a proven track record of sustained cash flows from high-margin, lower-carbon barrels,” Zoë Yujnovich, Integrated Gas and Upstream Director at Shell, said on Shell’s Capital Markets Day 2023. 

“Continued investments in oil and gas will be needed to make sure that the energy transition happens in a balanced way with a secure supply of affordable and increasingly lower-carbon energy. We will contribute to this balanced transition by focusing our investments on the most profitable and carbon-competitive projects,” Yujnovich said, expecting Shell’s total production to grow from 2025 “given our confidence in our portfolio and our capabilities.”

One exciting opportunity, Yujnovich noted, is offshore Namibia, where Shell will continue with its exploration efforts after making three discoveries in the Orange Basin there in the past two years. 

Exploration Success

French supermajor TotalEnergies also made a significant discovery of light oil with associated gas on the Venus prospect in the Orange Basin early last year. Venus in Namibia could be a “giant oil and gas discovery,” TotalEnergies said in an investor presentation last September.

TotalEnergies was recently named the upstream industry’s most-admired explorer and received the Discovery of the Year award for the Venus discovery offshore Namibia. 

Commenting on the state of exploration these days, Dr. Andrew Latham, Senior Vice President, Energy Research at Wood Mackenzie, said last week, 

“The exploration industry continues to see an excellent series of high-impact finds in many parts of the world.” 

“The industry remains very dynamic and these recognized companies, as well as many others, continue to deliver advantaged resources that can displace less sustainable supply,” Latham added. 

Offshore Rig Demand Rising 

Deepwater rig utilization is rising, and so are rates as companies increase exploration, WoodMac said in a report last month. Rig utilization has returned to pre-COVID levels, driving rates surging by 40% in the past year, and demand is set to increase by another 20% from 2024-2025, the consultancy noted. 

“Higher oil prices, the focus on energy security and deepwater’s emissions advantages have supported deepwater development and, to some extent, boosted exploration,” said Leslie Cook, principal analyst for Wood Mackenzie. 

“We expect demand to continue to rise.”

Most of the expected drilling growth and offshore rig demand is expected to come from the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Latin America, North America, and Africa, as well as parts of the Mediterranean. These areas will account for 75% of global floating rig demand through 2027, according to Wood Mackenzie. 

SLB, the world’s largest oilfield services provider, is optimistic about offshore drilling and exploration, too. 

“Today, offshore is the fastest growing market globally driven by long-cycle developments, production capacity expansions, the return of exploration and appraisal in brownfields and new frontiers, and the criticality of gas as a long-term fuel for energy security,” SLB’s chief executive Olivier Le Peuch said at the J.P. Morgan Energy, Power & Renewables Conference 2023 last month. 

“Offshore is experiencing a renaissance, with significant breadth and anticipated durability,” Le Peuch added. 

SLB expects offshore exploration spending to increase by more than 20% this year, said the executive at the oilfield services giant, which generates around 50% of its international revenue from offshore activities. 

“To conclude, we are in the midst of a distinct cycle with qualities that enhance the long-term outlook for our industry — Breadth, Resilience, and Durability — all reinforced by a pivot to international, offshore, gas, and the return of exploration and appraisal,” Le Peuch said. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) also sees global upstream investment in oil and gas exploration, extraction and production on track to rise by 11% this year from 2022 and reach $528 billion in 2023—the highest upstream investment level since 2015.