Rally in the North Sea
Rig demand, investment levels strong in short term, but tax changes may lead UK into choppier waters
By Linda Hsieh, Managing Editor with reporting by Jesse Maldonado, Associate Editor
Despite myriad challenges such as rising costs, mature fields and increasingly tougher regulations, the European drilling market continues to exhibit strength in terms of contract backlogs, rig utilization and a general feeling of optimism among drilling contractors. The delivery of newbuilds, particularly premium jackups, into this market is another positive indicator that offshore Europe still has plenty of room to grow.
“The North Sea is still a strong market. We see full utilization on jackups in the region,” Morten Pilnov, Commercial Head of Jackups and Harsh Environment for Maersk Drilling, said.
Matt Cook, researcher for Douglas Westwood, pointed to Norway as a standout in the region, noting that any increases in North Sea production is likely to come from this country. Norway currently produces approximately 3.8 million barrels of equivalent per day (boed). “Norway looks pretty promising for gas production. Last year it dropped by approximately 100,000 boed, but it will rally again as a significant number of new projects come on stream,” he said. “You should see production rally slightly toward the end of the decade, canceling out the recent drop.”
For the UK, Mr Cook was similarly optimistic – but only for the short term. “We are forecasting a bit of a rally over the next few years in terms of production. There are a few new projects at the moment alongside high levels of investment,” he said. “We see production going up very slightly until 2017-2018, and then we expect it to decline again. The UK is quite depleted, and we see a continuing shift toward smaller fields.”
Adding to depletion challenges is a tougher tax environment. Changes in the rate of supplementary charge and the rate for fields that are subject to the petroleum revenue tax (PRT) are significantly driving up operating costs on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). “It has already hampered production in the UK, and that is why we’re seeing a decline. It’s not like new fields aren’t being discovered. It’s just the incentives aren’t there for operators to come in with greenfield projects,” Mr Cook said.
In an analysis of the UK energy market released in June, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) stated that UKCS projects have become even less competitive than before due to significant increase in taxes. “Almost immediately after the new tax rates were implemented, development on several start-ups were suspended, including Statoil’s Marine and Chevron’s Bressay fields,” the report stated. “In addition, Centrica launched a review of all of its exploration activities, as many projects were deemed uneconomical under the new rates.”
The EIA analysis also forecast UK oil production to continue to decline through 2015. “Although its proximity to major consuming markets makes UK exploration attractive, recent increases in taxes will continue to affect the attractiveness of the UK fields in the longer term,” according to the report.
Another big issue looming for the UK’s drilling contractors concerns changes to taxation relating to transfer pricing. Under transfer pricing, drilling contractors – and most other work vessel owners – have traditionally entered into to advanced pricing agreements with the local tax authority and the rig or vessel owner’s operating (leasing) arm.
“All over the world, this is a convention for taxing rig and vessel groups operating mobile fleets in multiple locations,” Taf Powell, IADC Executive VP for Policy, Government and Regulatory Affairs, said. “However, the UK government has said they will no longer accept that relationship because it doesn’t leave enough profit in the UK. They’ve canceled all the advanced pricing agreements on which the companies have set out their business plans for up to five years ahead.”
IADC gathered its member companies along with tax experts to form a UK tax committee, as well as a UK liaison committee with producers and other stakeholders, to address the issue. “We mobilized a very tight, united campaign with contractors, producers and other maritime contractors to set out our complete opposition to the measure,” Mr Powell said.
He also advised contractors and producers around the world, not just in the UK, to stay aware. “It is likely that this unilateral measure in the UK will lead to similar action by other governments. We would be left with a random system that undermines the basis of leasing rigs, which has been the business model for the last 40 years.”
It is a matter of frustration that UK authorities launched the measure without prior consultation and thereby entered a forecast of a half-billion pounds (approximately US $800 million) in additional tax revenue into the UK account. IADC believes this sum is understated.
A primer on Directive EU 2013/30/EU
By Taf Powell, IADC Executive VP – Policy, Government & Regulatory Affairs
Directive EU 2013/30/EU is a wide-ranging set of measures that ascribe significant duties to producers (“operators”) and drilling contractors on MODUs (“owners”) and, to a lesser extent, to platform rig contractors. All European Union regulators must change, without exception.
The directive is modeled on best practices in the North Sea safety goal-setting regimes and will be recognizable to drilling contractors operating between Norway and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, even North Sea regimes will have to upgrade to the sum of best practices because none currently attains that mark, according to the EU. The farther from the North Sea that European drillers operate, the more profound will be the transition. In scope, the directive addresses the key players in our sector: the public consultees of licensing activity; economic licensing authorities; operators and owners; offshore regulatory authorities; independent verifiers; and trade unions.
In content, the directive addresses economic and environmental liabilities and financial security for damages. The amendment to the environmental liability directive extends the liability for “water damage” to the full continental shelf, where currently polluters are liable only within the territorial seas (up to 20 km, or 12 miles, from the coast).
More broadly, the directive’s content addresses prevention of major hazards through setting goals or objectives and incorporates environmental consequences of a major accident into an upgraded form of the North Sea safety case. Because safety and environment are incorporated together, the directive is able to address installation-specific emergency response plans and their relationship to national emergency plans. Duties to cooperate between owners and operators and regulators on priorities for major accident prevention are ascribed, as are duties to make emergency response equipment more inter-operable. Regulators are encouraged to recover their costs from operators and owners. The directive introduces measures for setting up independent verification schemes for every installation and well operation. Owners and operators must submit to the regulator a corporate board-level major accident prevention policy.
There is to be a pan-EU reporting of incidents and accidents of a major accident kind, including summary reports to the European Commission. The statutory reporting requirement for all EU countries represents the only truly new idea in the directive. The industry – IADC and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) – has been heavily engaged with the task group led by the Dutch regulator to produce the threshold values of the 10 types of incidents to be reported. New implementing legislation is to be published on the reporting format in late 2014.
Because the legal form is a directive, it acts upon EU Member States. Therefore, instead of a measure drafted to require “MODU owners shall prepare a (safety case) and submit it for acceptance to the (regulator) prior to operations commencing,” the directive requires that “Member States shall ensure that MODU owners shall prepare…” Member States must transpose the measures into national law, which is to be done by July 2015. At that point, duty holders – primarily operators (producers) and owners (drilling contractors) will acquire responsibilities that are enforceable. For reasons of practicability, the legal responsibilities will be introduced progressively, within flexible time frames having minimum thresholds, and applying differently to existing installations compared with new entrants/builds.
Should the panoply of new national legal frameworks not be recognizably consistent, the single great advantage of the directive to industry of a level European playing field will be swept away by a tide of confusing and distractingly costly changes and minutiae. Should the transitional phase be less than sensibly managed by regulators, offshore business will be disrupted. Should common reporting formats (ditto safety cases, ditto the creation of independent integrated regulators of safety and environment) drift away from the intended objectives, industry may be faced with duplicated responsibilities.
The goal of consistency and sensible transposition will be attained not least by holding national legislators and regulators to such account. An important subsidiary goal is for industry to not undertake measures that unknowingly veer away from the new requirements. It is, therefore, important that those that direct drilling and producing companies and control personnel and operations in Europe are properly apprised of the key measures in the directive and their implications.
Governments and regulators will be producing material over the coming year for consultation with stakeholders and to clarify how the new national regulations correlate to the measures in the directive. Conferences are likely to proliferate to share views between stakeholders. The quality of some of this is likely to be mixed.
IADC will be actively supporting its members to understand the directive and to secure better regulation – sensible, practicable and consistent – across all EU offshore basins.
This has proved difficult to overturn, Mr Powell said, except for a slight improvement in the cap on the profit split between the rig owner and its UK-based operating company. Meetings with senior government officials have established a strong consultative presence for UK drilling contractors going forward, but the tax changes are likely to be adopted with immediate effect.
Mr Powell believes it’s too early to say how many projects might be canceled or made uneconomic due to this measure, but he expects the UK to be a less attractive investment for drilling contractors than before the tax measure was announced. He characterized the potential consequences of the measure as far-reaching “with a danger of contagion.”
“IADC will closely monitor the situation to give one unified voice to the drilling industry when the measure comes up for review in 2015. We shall continue to press the UK authorities for both a fair deal to contractors, who invest billions in new rigs, and for fiscal stability,” he said.
Innovations keep North Sea young
For Maersk Drilling, which has been operating in the North Sea since 1972, this region remains a core market. The company currently has 10 rigs here, all jackups. Mr Pilnovsaid he continues to see full utilization of North Sea jackups.
He’s aware of operators pulling back capital in some cases but believes the impact has thus far been limited to the deepwater market. “Oil companies have been publicly announcing they are constraining their capital expenditures, but so far that hasn’t trickled down. The North Sea is still a strong market, and with our contract backlog, I don’t see any fast shifts in the near future,” Mr Pilnov said.
Of the 10 Maersk rigs currently contracted in the North Sea, seven are in Norway, two in Denmark and one in the UK. The latest addition to this fleet is the harsh-environment, XL Enhanced jackup Maersk Intrepid. The CJ70-design rig is expected to begin operations for Total E&P Norge in Norway beginning in Q3; the four-year contract will take the rig into the second half of 2018. Three other XL Enhanced jackups are under construction and, upon delivery, are all destined for Norway under multi-year contracts. “All of those rigs will be coming to Norway, one in the second half of 2014 and one in the first half of 2015. The last one will be coming to Norway in 2016. We have quite a healthy backlog,” Mr Pilnov said.
Even though there still are older rigs out in the market, he said, those are unlikely to impact prospects for the newer, more advanced units – simply because operators demand and are willing to pay for increased redundancy, automation and, ultimately, efficiency. “We have dual pipe handling on the XL Enhanced rigs so you can have one full string drilling and, on the other side, you can be assembling your drill pipe or casing. We also have a fully automated drill floor, which means there’s very limited manhandling,” he said, referring to Multi Machine Control. This fully remote-operated pipe-handling system allows all standard operations, such as stand-building and tripping, to be conducted without personnel on the drill floor.
In terms of size, Mr Pilnov noted, the XL Enhanced rigs also stand out. “It seems like everything in the world is getting bigger and bigger – it probably has to do with the layout and efficiency of the work environment and the stability of the rig.” The CJ70 design is currently the world’s largest, featuring 206.8-m (678-ft) legs that enable year-round operations in up to 150 m (492 ft) of water in the North Sea. “There’s talk of bigger jackup designs than this. The CJ80 is being talked about, and you have people dreaming about the CJ100 one day,” he said.
Mr Pilnov also believes that continued technological innovations, like the XL Enhanced jackups, will keep the North Sea busy for many more years. “When I joined the drilling industry 15 years ago, we had the same discussion that the North Sea was mature and had falling production. That discussion is still there today,” he commented. “With the seismic you can shoot today, the efficiency of the rigs that are coming out and the fact that oil companies are very comfortable with the North Sea… all of that has shown there is still a lot to do in the North Sea.”
He also pointed to the number of smaller but active operators who were not in the UK or Norwegian North Sea 10 years ago. “They have managed to come in and take advantage of whatever tax regimes are there and contract efficient rigs to make a business out of it. As rig contractors, we’ll have to bring efficient rigs that make it financially viable to explore for oil.”
No slowdown since 2010
A multitude of drilling requirements, including development wells, re-entries, appraisal wells and especially well abandonments, is driving a robust North Sea market for Ensco. The company has 10 jackups in the region – six in the UK, two in Denmark and two in the Netherlands. “We’re starting to see a lot more wells requiring abandonment in the Southern North Sea. Certainly this region can be cyclical, but we haven’t seen a slowdown since around 2010. People are still asking for rig availability, not just from an Ensco perspective but from an industrywide perspective,” said Julian Hall, VP European and Mediterranean Business Unit for Ensco. He is also serving as 2014 Chairman of the IADC North Sea Chapter. “The future of the North Sea and European markets is still very positive,” he said, noting that the North Sea was a key contributor to Ensco’s record revenue backlog for its entire jackup fleet in Q1 2014.
In this type of market, he added, flexibility is key. Ensco has a mix of jackups in the region to meet demands for various levels of rig capability, from the smaller 225-ft to 250-ft rigs such as ENSCO 70 and ENSCO 71 to the premium ENSCO 120 Series rigs that can drill in up to 400-ft water depths. The first in this series, ENSCO 120, is operating in the Central North Sea for Nexen Petroleum. A second unit, the ENSCO 121, recently commenced operations offshore Denmark under a two-year contract with Wintershall.
“The design of the 120 Series is geared around an efficient, affordable, heavy-duty jackup. It’s ideal for the big, HPHT wells that we have been drilling in the Central North Sea,” Mr Hall said. Besides HPHT equipment, this series of rigs also feature a 2.5 million-lb quad derrick, automated pipe-handling and ultra-high capacity jacking and fixation systems to enable drilling to 40,000 ft. Further, a patented cantilever technology allows the rig to drill across the full skidding envelope while maintaining maximum capability with its hookload and setback. “This rig is not going to be limited by capability in its operations.”
A third rig in this series, the ENSCO 122, is heading to this region later in the year to fulfill a two-year contract with NAM in the Dutch and UK North Sea.
Mr Hall also stressed that ensuring the competency of personnel who will crew these rigs is what will determine their success. “The arrival of the 120 Series rigs in the North Sea requires detailed planning around crewing and training to ensure we meet our high standards for competency,” he said. That doesn’t just mean drilling competence – it also means competence in safety, environmental and emergency response. “On top of drilling emergency response, we also have to look at environmental awareness and verification of equipment – key areas of focus for our regulators and stakeholders in Europe.”
Ensco’s commitment also extends to fulfilling requirements of the EU Offshore Safety Directive, which Mr Hall said would likely add requirements for more detailed verification of a rig’s safety-critical and environmental elements, as well as for ensuring the integrity of the entire rig. “It’s going to create some challenges, but we are ready for it… This has never been an industry where we can just sit back. It’s about continuous improvement.”
Cornering the harsh-environment/Arctic drilling market
As shallow-water reservoirs deplete in and around the North Sea, contractors are following operators to new frontiers, such as the Arctic, in search of additional hydrocarbon resources. Since it was spun off from Seadrill in 2011, North Atlantic Drilling Ltd (NADL) has been working to corner that niche market of harsh-environment/Arctic drilling. “We specialize only in harsh and Arctic operations,” NADL CEO Alf Ragnar Løvdal said. The company’s operations have spanned from UK’s West of Shetland to the Northern North Sea to the Faroe Islands. “We are also a couple of weeks away from moving to the Kara Sea north of Russia,” he said in early June. “We will actually drill the first well in the Kara Sea this summer, and we will continue to drill there next year.”
The two wells planned for the Kara Sea come as part of an agreement between ExxonMobil and Rosneft entered into last year. In addition, an investment and cooperation agreement between NADL and Rosneft was announced in late May to pursue growth opportunities in the Russian market through at least 2022. The agreement is expected to provide NADL with additional contracts for offshore assets and with onshore drilling opportunities in Russia.
Mr Løvdal said NADL is already fully booked in 2014 for its current fleet of eight rigs – four semis, three jackups and one drillship. With the exception of one semi operating in the UK, the other seven are all contracted in Norway; operators range from ExxonMobil to Statoil to Total to ConocoPhillips. “We are also already 75% booked for 2015. The backlog is quite good for the size of the fleet,” he said.
The company’s most recent newbuild, the West Linus jackup, recently mobilized to Norway for a five-year contract with ConocoPhillips. The ninth rig – the deepwater semi West Rigel – is under construction at Singapore’s Jurong shipyard and due for delivery in 2015. “Since we spun off from Seadrill, we have added one unit every year,” Mr Løvdal said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more rigs to come.”
Such newbuild activity is necessary to support a much-needed fleet renewal, he said. “In the UK, the average fleet age is more than 30 years old, some up to 45 years old. In the Norwegian sector, the average fleet age is about 25 years, but a lot of units are also more than 30 years old,” he commented. “In my mind, the new units coming in will replace the older ones. The northern Arctic, combined with the Barents Sea and North Sea, will require more equipment tailor-made for harsh environments and Arctic operations.”
IADC engaging EUOAG on reporting format for offshore safety incidents
The European Offshore Authorities Group (EUOAG) is drafting legislation governing a common reporting format for all offshore safety incidents. This includes hydrocarbon releases and leaks, well control incidents, stationkeeping and structural integrity failures, major accidents and significant environmental incidents. The work stems from the directive on offshore safety (2013/30/EU) issued by the EU in June 2013. Annex IX of the directive calls for operators to make regular reports to the relevant country’s regulator and for the regulator to report to the EU Commission. A separate EU regulation on offshore safety reporting is expected by early 2015.
“IADC has been engaged with the EUOAG from the start in discussing the various topics and providing industry advice in shaping procedures and documentation,” John Boogaerdt, IADC Regional Director for Europe, said. “For the past six months, IADC has been actively reviewing the various proposals on common reporting coming from the EUOAG.”
The association has also set up an EU HSE Committee to discuss and review the detailed proposals and forms to be submitted under the common reporting format.
“IADC’s main focus has been advising the EUOAG on the definitions and forms to be used for capturing event descriptions in a way that avoids duplication and conflicts between the various existing safety reporting systems,” Mr Boogaerdt said. He added that, although the consultation period on the common reporting format is closed, IADC and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) have proposed establishing a task force. This group would continue assisting EUOAG with reviewing the detailed forms to be used and provide expert advice on potential future questions as they arise during implementation of such a regulation.
EUOAG, which is led by Chairman Klaus-Dieter Borchardt and Vice Chairman Dr Joerg Kohli, was expected to hold its next meeting on 3-4 July. Main topics on the agenda are a workshop on independent verification and verification schemes, as well as liability issues. A presentation may also be made by industry associations, including IADC, on the latest safety/environmental initiatives and on developments in the industry and recent incidents.
The EU directive must be implemented in each member state’s legislation by June 2015.
But it’s not just the equipment. Frontier drilling also will require a different management system and more detailed planning. “For us, the challenge is to plan flexibility. We need to have contingency plans to ensure efficient operations. Compared with operating in benign waters, you have to put a lot more engineering into it to ensure safe and efficient operations,” he said. “We also have to train people to stay aware and to look for signals when they have to react… Our key to success is through the people. A lot of people can buy a rig, but it’s the combination of the rig, the management system and the people who deliver the service.”
Going small on size, big on automation
While the bulk of the offshore drilling industry is going big, Swift Drilling has decided to go small. Founded in 2008, the company is focused on shallow-water opportunities in the North Sea. In a nutshell, its philosophy is “everything smaller, less people and more automation,” Sybe J.L. Visser, Managing Director for Swift Drilling, said.
The company currently has just one rig – Swift 10, a GustoMSC SEA 2750 independent leg cantilever jackup rated for up to 147 ft of water. It is operating offshore the Netherlands for NAM under a five-year contract, with an option for another five years.
“The drilling unit has a hydraulic mast, and we only use singles. That means you have very little equipment overhead,” Mr Visser said. With a maximum drilling depth of 5,500 m (18,045 ft), the light jackup was designed to work in the Southern North Sea. “This rig isn’t for drilling difficult wells with a lot of deviation – it’s for drilling straight down to the reservoir. We can complete the well, install the subsea Christmas tree, clean it up and leave it. Another party will come in to tie it into the existing infrastructure. This makes it possible for oil companies to keep drilling the marginal fields in the North Sea.”
For this type of rig to succeed, he added, automation is key. “One of our core ideas is to keep people away from machinery.” A specially designed pipe-handling system begins onshore where the pipe is measured and drifted. “The pipe comes in a basket to the rig, where we only put it on the cantilever. We don’t touch it with our hands anymore. The machines take over.” Swift 10 can operate with 40-45 people, an approximately 40% lower head count than conventional drilling rigs.
Looking ahead, Mr Visser said Swift Drilling is working to design a slightly heavier drilling unit – perhaps 450 tons compared with the current rig’s 250 tons. He would also like to significantly extend its automation capabilities. “I want to take the driller away from the drill floor. Why does he need to be so close? Give him an operator station inside the accommodation so we take him away from the danger zone… We’re big believers that, in the future, we can do our business remotely controlled.”
Well control must be a part of this automation, he insisted. “We should not rely on people to push buttons if something goes wrong. There are a lot of industries today that don’t rely on people anymore. They follow the process, and if the process goes wrong, the system will stop the process because it’s not allowed to continue. That takes away the risk.”
Equipment and procedures have become so complicated, he said, humans often can’t be expected to control them – at least not efficiently. “We have to put that into computers as much as we can… You can do a lot to train human behavior. You can teach them over and over again, but there will always be the human being that makes mistakes.”