A new report by Tudor, Pickering, Hold, and Company says that this is the beginning of the end for major crude oil discoveries in the world.
As reported by Oil Price and Fuel Fix, the respected energy investment bank is predicting that global energy investment will drop to $25 billion in 2016, down from $50 billion just a few years ago. This will increase the chances that some large oil fields will remain undeveloped for years. In fact, the report says that some companies have given up looking for oil all together. If they are right in their assessment, this confirms my suspicion that this may be a historic turning point in this market and one that we will be referring to for decades.
Several once-promising frontiers for oil exploration have failed to attract the oil majors. Mexico's two auctions this year for acreage in the Gulf of Mexico have largely disappointed. An auction held by the U.S. government earlier this year for Gulf of Mexico holdings in American waters also saw little interest from the industry, the worst showing for the region in three decades.
In Brazil an auction for some offshore blocks in the Atlantic Ocean, once a highly sought-after region, saw results that were a failure. This was despite the fact that Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Statoil, ExxonMobil, and BP were registered for Brazil's auction, yet none submitted bids.
Shell also withdrew from the Arctic in late September, another area that the industry had believed would be a huge source of new supply. Shell decided to pull the plug for good, potentially killing off Arctic oil for decades.
Cuts to spending make sense in the short-run, but they also set up the oil industry for stagnant production in the years ahead. Once the backlog of projects currently under development begins to clear, there will be few, if any, major sources of new supply to replace them.
The Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic and offshore Brazil—that is to say, deepwater projects—take years to develop. Not drilling now means oil won't be coming online in 2020 or 2025.
Add to that the natural decline of existing oil fields, which will cut into supplies on an ongoing basis, depleting production by an average of around about 5% per year, with wildly different decline rates depending on where the oil is being extracted. Despite the seemingly unending glut in supplies, the markets could tighten pretty significantly in the years ahead.
There is an argument that says that shale resources (so abundant around the world) could provide enough new sources of supply for a long time. As soon as oil prices rise, new shale projects will come online, responding much quicker than the conventional fields of the past.
But even if that is true—and the extent of shale production potential over the long-term is up for debate—it is not necessarily good news for the oil majors themselves. The largest companies, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, or BP, thrive in areas that are difficult for smaller companies such as deep offshore drilling. Shale production, on the other hand, can be done by hundreds of smaller drillers. In short, the prospects for the oil majors are uncertain. Mega-projects are no longer in fashion, with costs out of control it's not clear how the oil majors will pivot going forward.
Meanwhile, low crude oil prices are putting significant pressure on these companies, potentially threatening their coveted dividend policies. Slashing dividends, which could become unavoidable if oil prices remain low, will tarnish the oil majors' reputation with Wall Street. There are few good options right now as reported by OilPrice.com.