Energy Insight: North Sea oil and gas and the price of oil

“More than 42.3 billion barrels oil equivalent (bboe) have been produced from the UKCS [United Kingdom Continental Shelf] and 10-20 bboe are estimated to remain. Despite the low levels of exploration activity in recent years, encouraging discoveries have recently been made in the West of Shetland and the Northern North Sea, Central North Sea and Southern North Sea.” 
UK Oil and Gas Authority, 2019

The North Sea is one of the most mature oil and gas provinces, and has been explored extensively since gas was first discovered in 1959. The North Sea oil and gas industry was strongly affected by a drop in crude oil prices in 2014. This Energy Insight will explore crude oil price drivers and effects of the 2014 price drop, as well as the outlook for the North Sea oil and gas industry.

Photograph of a semi-submersible oil drilling rig, Cromarty Firth, Invergordon, Scotland. © Terry Whittaker, reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

History of the North Sea

“The North Sea is the shallow, north-eastern arm of the Atlantic Ocean, located between the British Isles and the mainland of north-western Europe and covering an area of 220,000 square miles (570,000 square km). Discoveries of petroleum and natural gas beneath the seafloor began in 1959, and the UK began recovering oil from the North Sea in 1975.
In the central portions of the North Sea, offshore oil wells now stretch from north of the Shetlands for more than 400 miles (640km) to the south.”
Britannica, 2019

A short video on the history of the North Sea Oil. BBC. 26th July 2016

Books in the EI library include: The official history of the North Sea oil and gas: Volume 1: The growing dominance of the state and The official history of North Sea oil and gas: Volume 2: Moderating the state's role

Location map

An offshore interactive map from the Oil and Gas Authority.

Why do crude oil prices change?

Put simply, supply and demand drive crude oil prices. When oil supply increases but demand for oil doesn't at the same rate, oil prices drop, as seen in 2014-15 and late 2018. As mentioned in the 2016 Energy Barometer, “the effect of the continued lower crude oil price, $35/barrel at the time of the survey, is being felt across the energy system. Impacts on the oil and gas supply industry include reduced investment, imbalanced markets and job losses.”
In the 2010s the US has seen a dramatic increase in production thanks to the shale oil boom, which has greatly reduced oil imports. Countries that once sold to the US are forced to trade and compete in Asian and other markets. Other countries such as Canada and Iraq have also seen an increase in production and exports year on year. Demand growth for oil has lagged due to vehicles becoming more energy efficient, and economies in Europe and developing countries have weakened. OPEC has made several production cuts in an effort to raise oil prices, for example in Autumn 2016.

In 2017, oil prices started to recover, in part thanks to a year of production cuts led by Russia and OPEC. Outages in Libya and the North Sea also reduced supply. However, the US continued to export huge amounts of oil and gas, approaching 10million barrels per day (mbpd) by the end of 2017.
Despite this, prices rose as investors anticipated lower output from Iran due to US sanctions, as well as a drop in production in Venezuela and Libya. Oversupply caused prices to sharply drop once again in the final quarter of 2018.

What drives crude oil prices? An analysis of 7 factors that influence oil markets, with chart data updated monthly and quarterly. EIA. July 12 2016.

Oil Prices: What’s Behind the volatility? Simple economics. The New York Times. September 29 2016

Saudi Arabia Says Many Nations Will Join OPEC Output Cuts. Bloomberg. October 19 2016

Oil Prices near 2015 highs on tight market. Reuters. 28 December 2017

Oil jumps the most since November 2016 after OPEC’s moderate supply hike. CNBC, Reuters. 21st June 2018

The effect of low crude oil price on the North Sea

Brent crude oil prices started falling in 2014 and in January 2016 the price of Brent crude oil fell to below $28 a barrel. This has had devastating effects on the North Sea including investment cut backs from top companies and thousands of job cuts. Oil and Gas UK (OGUK) report that employment supported by the offshore oil and gas industry dropped from 463,900 in 2014 to an estimated 282,700 in 2018. 2018 also saw the lowest level of new oil and gas wells being drilled since 1965. Additionally, OGUK have warned that a no-deal Brexit may negatively impact the industry, adding £500million to sector costs.

Just how low can oil prices go and who is hardest hit? BBC. 18 January 2016.

Oil price crash: How the industry's decline will affect the UK economy Independent. January 18 2016

North Sea oil production creeps up from record lows Telegraph. September 14 2016

North Sea oil and gas output rises but investment dries up Telegraph. September 26 2016

Oil price and stock markets rise as OPEC cuts crude output The Guardian. September 29 2016

North Sea's Enquest enters £2.5bn restructuring to survive looming debt crunch Telegraph. October 13 2016

North Sea oil and gas drilling falls to lowest level since 1965. The Guardian. 11 September, 2018

Future of North Sea Oil and Gas

Over 42 billion barrels have been extracted from the North Sea and around 20 billion could remain meaning there is perhaps 30 to 40 years of production remaining. It has been reported that the North Sea has two years to improve performance to avoid premature decline.

In September 2018, energy company Total announced the discovery of a new gas field at Glendronach, west of the Shetland Islands. Initial estimates place the volume of gas at 176 million barrels oil equivalent (mboe), the largest conventional gas discovery in the North Sea since 2008. This was swiftly followed in January 2019 by the discovery of an even larger gas field at Glengorm in the central North Sea. The Glengorm site could hold as much as 250 mboe, and is jointly owned by CNOOC, Edison and Total. Meanwhile in November 2018, BP announced it had hit first oil after £5 billion of investment in the Clair Ridge project (45 miles west of Shetland), safeguarding oil worker jobs until 2050 and beyond.

In general, there has been a slight recovery in the North Sea oil and gas industry since 2014. Kevin Swann, senior analyst at consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie, has suggested that “companies are focusing on better prospects, rather than drilling everything”. It seems likely that there is still significant value for investors in the UKCS, as long as exploration is more measured and selective. 

North Sea oil: Facts and figures BBC. 24 February 2014.

A quarter of North Sea oil platforms 'could be scrapped in 10 years' The Guardian. 7 February 2016.

The future of the North Sea Oil & Gas. PWC. 2016.

Economic report  Oil and Gas UK. 2016

Untapped North Sea oil and gas is 'significant opportunity' BBC. October 19 2016.


Further to the declining output, and therefore income, from North Sea Fields, an additional cost to be added to operating budgets is that of decommissioning existing North Sea production structures. Some 470 installations, 7000 miles of pipeline and over 5000 wells are coming to the end of their useful lives. In 2010, the EI together with DeLoitte, produced a document outlining the thinking at the time on decommissioning:-

Decommissioning: the end is nigh Deloitte/ Energy Institute Energy Briefing Series 2010 Decommissioning

For a comprehensive guide to the decommissioning sector, see the Energy Insight: Decommissioning offshore oil and gas

Developments in the deepwater sector

As more accessible existing plays become worked out and production drops to uneconomic levels, the world’s almost infinite demand for oil and gas has led to the need to expand exploration and production into deeper water areas, leading to advances in technology. Deepwater North Sea is estimated to hold over 20% of the UK’s remaining reserves in an extremely hostile environment.

Off the coast of Aberdeen, Neptune Energy are investing the high pressure, high temperature Seagull field, which is expected to produce a modest 50,000 barrels of oil and gas per day over 10 years from 2021. Improvements in 3D seismic imaging may allow operators to discover new reserves in previously written-off areas, for example the Rattray volcanic province. 140km north-west of the Shetland Islands, Siccar Point Energy is exploring potential new gas plays between the Rosebank and Cambo Fields.

This energy briefing, produced by Deloitte and the EI in 2010 gives an insight into the problems encountered and overcome at the time when the prospect of millions of barrels of recoverable oil was exceptionally attractive to producers:
Developments in deepwater oil exploration Deloitte/ Energy Institute Energy Briefing Series 2010 Deepwater oil exploration

Opposition to new exploration

The North Sea remains a viable source of oil and gas, albeit on a more modest scale than seen in the late 20th Century. However, the industry faces a new challenge from environmental campaigners who seek to remove fossil fuels from the UK energy mix in a bid to tackle climate change, as well as growing consumer and political pressure to decarbonise the economy. Responding to the discovery of gas at Glengorm, CEO of Friends of the Earth Craig Bennett stated that “if these companies were to exploit this new find… many more people will die because of the impacts of climate change”. With the UK committed to the 2015 Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the UK government’s Clean Growth strategy prioritising nuclear and offshore wind, developing new fossil fuel infrastructure in the North Sea may no longer be a desirable option.

This Energy Insight was originally published on 4th November 2016. It was updated on 29th April 2019.

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