Around the world: how has Covid-19 affected offshore exploration?

Yoana Cholteeva 11 January 2021 (Last Updated January 11th, 2021 10:10)

Oil and gas exploration projects around the world have been highly influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic and its ripple effects. We look at how major oil producing regions were affected in 2020.

Around the world: how has Covid-19 affected offshore exploration?
As of 8 May 2020, the Lower 48 land rig count reached 355 rigs, according to Baker Hughes’ data. Credit: Berardo62

According to data published by energy research firm Rystad, oil and gas exploration work remained stable over 2020, despite the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, with 73 new discoveries as of October suggesting that the sector is more resilient than previously thought. 

The analysis showed that Russia’s Gazprom had the best performance, followed by Total and Apache, with the latter two having found around 960 million boe and 700 million boe respectively of net recoverable resources this year.

However, according to energy technologists Baker Hughes’ Rig Count Overview & Summary Count, as of 11 December the US had 338 rigs, 461 less than a year earlier. Additionally, as of November 2020, there were 669 rigs internationally, 427 less than 2019, which indicates significant shrinkage in explorations and numerous hardships for the offshore industry.

So which areas were hit the hardest, and which regions proved most resilient? 

US and the Gulf of Mexico

The number of active drilling rigs in the lower 48 states of the US, excluding the Gulf of Mexico, stood at 753 in February. This fell to 738 in March, before reaching a four-year low of 572 in April, the lowest since May 2016. As of 8 May 2020, the Lower 48 land rig count reached 355 rigs, according to Baker Hughes’ data.

When it comes to the sought-after oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico, production is estimated to remain relatively flat. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts an average of 1.9 million b/d over 2020 and 2021, almost unchanged from its 2019 average.

The administration said that it does not expect any cancellations to Gulf of Mexico projects announced in 2020 and 2021.

Before the oil price crisis in the first half of 2020, Shell had awarded a contract to Sembcorp Marine for construction of the topsides and hull of a floating production unit for the Whale exploration project in the US Gulf of Mexico. Later this year, uncertain economic conditions forced Shell to postpone the project to 2021. 

Regarding crude oil production in Alaska, the EIA predicted that it would remain relatively stable, at an average of 460,000 b/d in 2020, and that it will slightly rise in 2021.

Norway

Oil companies operating in Norway, Western Europe’s largest petroleum producer, drilled just 30 exploration wells off the coast of Norway by the end of 2020. This marked the lowest level in 14 years, as announced by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) in October.

The search for new oil and gas reserves has also decreased from 57 drilled wells in 2019 and falls behind previous projections of about 50 wells.

The NPD said in a statement: “The decline in demand for oil and lower prices have led oil companies to reduce their exploration budgets for the year and postpone a number of exploration wells.”

Companies including Equinor, Aker BP, and Lundin Energy announced considerable cost cuts in the early phases of the Covid-19 crisis, attempting to preserve capital and weather the storm.

In response, NPD director of exploration Torgeir Stordal expressed concerns over the near future of the industry: “Without new discoveries, oil and gas production could decline rapidly after 2030.” 

In the meantime, Norway still believes that there are significant resources to be found beneath its seabed, which are projected at around 3.9 billion cubic meters (bcm), a slight decrease from 4 bcm two years ago, the NPD said.

The UK Continental Shelf

British consultancy Westwood Global estimated in September 2020 that the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) was on course to reach a record low of offshore exploration wells this year, its lowest since companies started exploring the North Sea for oil in the 1960s.

In May 2020, along with the publication of its annual review of global exploration activity and outlook for 2020 and beyond, the consultancy said that while dealing with the immediate Covid-19 crisis, “societal pressure is building for a rapid transition to a low-carbon future”.

In September, Alyson Harding, technical manager at Westwood, said in Energy Voice that the company predicts only five exploration wells will be drilled in 2020, one less than in 2018. 

In comparison, 14 exploration wells were drilled last year with only one becoming commercial.

According to Westwood’s early estimations from February, the UKCS was predicted to reach 17 wells by the end of the year, but the pandemic hampered these plans.

So far, Chrysaor’s and Apache’s Solar well and Total’s Isabella well are commercially viable.

While the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) offered 113 licence areas over 259 blocks or part-blocks to 65 companies in early September, it is not certain that operations will take advantage of this opportunity because of current market instability.

Looking ahead, Harding said in a company webinar that the firm has been given indications from companies that 23 exploration and 10 appraisals wells could be drilled in the UKCS next year, depending on the impact of Covid-19 in 2021.

Brazil

The Brazilian oil and gas industry has been deeply influenced by the unusual events of 2020.

In November 2019, Petrobras announced its 2020–24 investment plan, with a new budget of approximately $75.7bn (84.94% allocated to exploration and production). Despite the challenges, the company has not reported massive obstacles.

It also continued with its divestment programme of some upstream, midstream, and downstream assets, opening new opportunities for foreign investment.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, Petrobras and other oil companies shifted focus from their own projects onto divesting in ancillary projects, which helped reduce their expenses while generating income for the sale of such non-core assets.

November’s bidding rounds by the National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (ANP), showed that the usual interest in Brazil’s offshore upstream rounds has plunged, which led to the suspension of the Brazil Round 17 for exploratory blocks under the concession regime. 

Despite the hardships, the ANP managed to keep the First Cycle of the permanent offer, which involves a continuous offer of fields returned and exploratory blocks offered in previous tenders that were not acquired or returned to the agency.

Mozambique

Mozambique’s untapped oil and gas potential was first revealed by initial exploratory drilling in 2007.

Later, natural gas became part of Mozambique’s oil and gas strategy to help industrialise the northern provinces of the country. However, after some recent project cancellations, Mozambique’s Council of Ministers is now planning to transport the north’s oil and gas to the better developed south.

In a tender process run in 2017, Shell was given the right to build a gas-to-liquids plant that would convert gas to synthetic diesel, naphtha, and kerosene; Norwegian chemical company Yara International was allowed to build a fertiliser plant to power the northern town of Palma using domestic market gas; and Kenyan power company Great Lakes Africa Energy was allocated gas to build a 250MW power plant in the north-eastern city of Nacala.

However, whether influenced by the Covid-19 crisis or rising environmental scrutiny in the country, it appears that only the Nacala power plant will take place. Yara has cancelled its fertiliser project and Shell’s CEO has been giving indications that the company does not expect to develop any new greenfield gas-to-liquids projects.