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Well activity decline continues with UK NSTA concerned over projected drilling activity

Last year, a total of just 48 development wells were drilled and 12 exploration and appraisal (E&A) wells were completed in 2022 in the UK North Sea, says the UK North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA). This is against an NSTA baseline ambition of 60 development wells drilled per year to help slow the ongoing decline in production and assist in securing a greater proportion of domestically produced hydrocarbons.

According to the NSTA’s latest Wells Insight Report, the UK saw 334 million BOE of potential hydrocarbons discovered in the past three years, and it is important that appraisal and development of this possible resource are undertaken quickly in the drive to achieve secure domestic oil and gas production as the energy transition progresses.

Of the 48 wells completed, 40 are producers while the other eight are water injectors. This total is down from the previous year in which 62 were completed. However, the total development well spend of £1.23 billion was only slightly less than the £1.33 billion in 2021, indicating that the average wellbore cost in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) has risen.

The completed wells were mainly in the Central North Sea and Northern North Sea with the Southern North Sea and West of Shetland making up the rest.

The UKCS is a mature basin and its existing well infrastructure present opportunities to access new areas of individual reservoirs and increase recovery factors via new wells and side-tracks from existing wellbores. That said, there is a continuing decline in well activity. There were 48 development wells spudded in 2022, down from 62 in 2021 and 73 in 2020. Similarly, well interventions dropped from 566 in 2020 to 522 in 2021 to 511 in 2022. E&A wells remained steady with 12 in 2022, up two from the previous year.

Total well stock has reduced steadily as fields reach the end of their lives and cease production, and this reduction is likely to continue with more fields reaching Certificate of Proficiency (CoP) by 2030.

The report also noted some encouraging signs fro drilling activity. This year has seen a reduction in shut-in wells from 785 to 743, a 5% reduction in shut-in well stock, as operators focused on intervention to restore production from idle wells reacting to increased commodity prices and the need to secure domestic supply. Well intervention activity other than restoring shut-ins remained low with only 88 optimization jobs completed and a decrease in safeguarding jobs from 235 to 208.

The NSTA said it is concerned that operators only achieve around 60% of their projected drilling activity, and wants to see that figure substantially improve as it gives supply chains greater confidence in the volume of work coming through.

Nonetheless, operators suggest that activity may pick up, forecasting high and moderate confidence that 77 E&A wells will be drilled between now and 2025.

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