‘Spoiled for choice’: discussing offshore opportunities with the UK Dept of Trade

Umar Ali 4 June 2019 (Last Updated June 10th, 2019 14:57)

The UK’s Department for International Trade supports and advises businesses in the offshore and subsea sectors, providing opportunities for overseas companies to work and trade with the UK. The Director of Energy and Infrastructure Campbell Keir sat down with Umar Ali to explain how the department works, and why he believes the UK is spoiled for choice when it comes to new markets.

‘Spoiled for choice’: discussing offshore opportunities with the UK Dept of Trade
“These aren’t one-off agreements, it’s a sustainable business.” Campbell Keir, deputy director of energy and infrastructure is optimistic about the UK’s offshore potential. Credit: Cipiota

The Department for International Trade (DIT) is responsible for promoting international investments and trade in the UK, as well as developing trade policy framework. As new markets are developed and the financial landscape is shifted by changes like Brexit, the DIT works to ensure investments in the UK remain stable and profitable.

In the thick of it is Campbell Keir, Deputy Director of Energy and Infrastructure responsible for the Oil and Gas, Renewable Energy, Civil Nuclear and Infrastructure portfolio.

Umar Ali (UA): How is the DIT supporting new companies in the offshore oil and gas industry?

Campbell Keir (CK): So what we try to do, if we’re looking at exports as an example, is we’ll look at the market and what the market needs. Perhaps a country is developing its oil and gas industry or maybe it’s got a mature one it’s looking to develop.

We look to see what they need in terms of goods and services. We’ve got a fairly comprehensive view of what the supply chain in the UK looks like, so we will then say: “That market requires some enhanced oil recovery services” or “They’ve got a project that requires some particular expertise in deep-water,” and try and introduce those supply chain companies to that market.

We either take a mission to that market or we will bring the market to the UK. We quite often arrange missions for overseas buyers to visit the UK, particularly Aberdeen, where we’ll get people together and try to introduce them to the opportunities the buyers are looking for.

We also work with prime ministerial trade envoys or ministers, and do big trade supplier fairs with UK Export Finance.

Where there’s a gap in the market that’s not supplied, we try and find companies that could move into that area – companies that are new to the market rather than existing companies that aren’t exporting.

UA: What are some examples of companies and countries you’ve supported?

CK: One good example of how we work is our agreements with Kazakhstan. We have a government-to-government agreement with Kazakhstan to help them develop their oil and gas centre, which has some very large ongoing hydrocarbon developments, and work with their government organisations and main operators to identify areas where the UK supply chain could help.

We’ve arranged for UK companies to visit Kazakhstan and vice-versa, and as a result, UK companies have signed joint venture agreements with Kazakhstan.

What’s important to me is that these aren’t one-off agreements, it’s a sustainable business and we help develop this business, including technology transfer and local employment. We’re doing something similar in Azerbaijan, but not every market is the same – we wouldn’t do the same thing in Norway or Brazil, so we tailor our solutions to every specific market.

Another specific example is Coltraco Ultrasonics, a designer of ultrasonic technology that exports to 109 countries across the globe, and has recently entered the Brazilian market after having attended one of our missions in Rio di Janeiro.

UA: Which new markets hold the most promise?

CK: I think there are a lot of opportunities out there. Oil and gas prices are in reasonable places and the market has adjusted to them, so a lot of developments are going ahead.

There are lots of opportunities in Brazil, and you can see the Mexican market is opening up. Countries in Africa like Senegal, Mauritania and Mozambique show a lot of promise as well. I think we’re rather spoiled for choice at the moment.

What’s key to me at the moment is that our job as government is to do only what we can do – we don’t interfere in the commercial process.

What we try and do is, if you like, matchmaking. We try to say “Look, in Mozambique we can see there’s a need for 4.5 inch valves” or other services, and say how the UK can offer these services.

We use the trade commissioners we have overseas and our own specialists to highlight opportunities countries should be pursuing, and how UK Export Finance can help them with that.

If you’re a small company, going overseas to a strange market is tough. They often don’t have the money or people to focus on markets that big companies have, so they really look to the DIT to say “Look, here’s where we think you should be looking.”

Of course it’s up to them at the end of the day to make their commercial choices, but we try to point people in the right direction, then help make it happen.

UA: How is the DIT helping companies respond to decommissioning?

CK: Decommissioning is a growing skillset, and the UK is quite advanced in its decommissioning skills. You can see around the world that more and more oil and gas facilities will need to be decommissioned, and that is an opportunity for us to export that skill.

UA: How is the DIT helping companies respond to new technologies?

CK: When I first started in the oil and gas industry we did everything with telexes – that shows you how old I am! The first time I was on duty with a mobile phone it was a rather large device that had to be plugged in, so technology is moving very fast.

The advent of things like drones, advanced robotics, underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), big data and artificial intelligence are all areas that are in some shape of form going to impact the oil and gas sector. Don’t ask me how, because I would never have predicted the introduction of mobile phones, but I know these things are coming.

There are a lot of companies spending a lot of time and money looking into these technologies. I think they’ll also make operations safer, which is a big priority in the oil and gas industry, and make things more efficient and cost-effective.

There’s also crossover with different sectors – you can see decommissioning in oil and gas crossing over into development of offshore wind, for example. And new technologies allow these different sectors to share ideas.

Advances in seismic technology and imaging can also allow the industry to identify additional resources in existing platforms, potentially rejuvenating older assets that would have been decommissioned.

UA: How is the DIT helping oil and gas companies prepare for the big changes Brexit will cause to the global market?

CK: Clearly our priority is to avoid disruption to our global trading agreements as we leave the European Union, and we seek continuity from existing free trade agreements.

We are continuing to engage as a government with all of our trading partners, and we advise businesses to plan for a number of Brexit scenarios, including no deal.

We are engaging with British businesses and answering their questions as much as we can to help them prepare, and advising them to be prepared.

UA: How do you see the UK oil and gas industry faring after Brexit?

CK: If I could give you predictions, I would be a very rich man. But the oil and gas industry is robust, and we have the right services, goods and experience so I think all will be well.