Drillers could double project investment decisions in 2017, Wood Mac says

Major oil companies could venture back into the ocean depths this year.

Energy research firm Wood Mackenzie believes drillers will double the number of final investment decisions this year compared to last year, meaning the industry may pull the trigger on 20 large multiyear projects in 2017.

That’s still only half the annual average number of large projects launched each year from 2010 to 2014, when the industry began a string of expensive so-called mega-projects. But this year, oil companies will likely focus on smaller, more efficient projects close to existing infrastructure, said Julie Wilson, a Wood Mackenzie researcher in Houston.

After the collapse of oil prices, companies scrambled to curb costs and reduce the time it takes to drill deep oil and gas wells. Drillers could spend $7 per barrel in capital expenditures this year on these smaller projects this year, compared to $17 a barrel before the bust, pushing rates of return up from 9 percent to 16 percent over the same period, Wood Mackenzie estimates.

Though companies may sign off on some deep-water projects in the Gulf of Mexico, Guyana and Brazil this year, half of these 40 large projects aren’t profitable enough to launch even at $60 a barrel oil.

“There are still a lot of deep water projects that struggle to make the 15 percent hurdle rate,” in terms of rates of return, Wilson said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done on those.”

These projects often face strict local content rules in places like Brazil and Nigeria requiring them to use locally supplied labor and materials.

Still, as oil prices rise, drillers could face investor pressure to begin planning how they’ll churn out oil in the future, after a two-year bust that whittled away at oil production rates and reserves.

“You’ve got to keep investing just to stand still,” said Jamie Webster, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “The constraint is how good they feel about the market, and do they feel ready to pull the trigger.”

In the U.S. shale patch, Wood Mackenzie expects producers to increase spending 23 percent to $61 billion this year, the first annual spending increase since crude crashed in 2014.

That could bring another 240 land drilling rigs to the market and lift oil production by half a million barrels a day by the end of the year, compared to the end of last year. A lot of the action is expected to take place in West Texas’ Permian Basin, where companies spent $20 billion in a merger and acquisition land grab last year.

Shale drillers have become more efficient since the oil bust began, reducing break even prices for oil fields by 25 percent from $65 a barrel to $49 a barrel, on average.

“Even though cost inflation looms, there’s still running room for more efficiencies,” said Jeanie Harrison, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie. In the Wolfcamp Shale in West Texas, for example, the firm believes drilling could speed up another 20 to 30 percent, she said.

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