Photo: ExxonMobil last year used the Noble Tom Madden drillship for drilling off Guyana (for illustration purposes); Photo source: Noble Corp.

Frontier exploration drilling in 2021 fell to the lowest level ever recorded by Westwood

Energy intelligence provider Westwood Global Energy has revealed that frontier exploration drilling fell to the lowest level ever recorded by the company, showing that the oil & gas industry is less concerned with long term renewal and is instead focused on quicker returns.

According to Westwood’s report on Wednesday, high impact drilling activity in 2021 was at a similar level to 2016-2018, with 74 wells completed. The discovered resource was disappointing, down from 19 bnboe in 2020 to 6.6 bnboe in 2021, split 36 per cent oil and 64 per cent gas. The commercial success rate declined from an unusually high 41 per cent in 2020 to 31 per cent in 2021, but still higher than the 23 per cent average in 2016-2018.

Map showing potentially commercial high impact discoveries estimated >100MMBOE in 2021
Source Westwood’s wildcat

As in 2020, discovered resource in 2021 was dominated by a small number of large discoveries in Russia, which together accounted for 3.2bnboe (48 per cent) of the total.

Outside Russia, discoveries in 2021 were at the lowest level (3.4bnboe) since at least 2008. The largest discovery of the year was at the Zinichev discovery (VKB-1) in the Yenisey-Khatanga Basin onshore Russia, estimated at 2.3bnbobe (13tcf). VKB was the only discovery in 2021 estimated to be >500mmboe, compared to 2020 when eight discoveries >500mmboe were made. The largest discovery outside of Russia is considered to be Eni’s Baleine discovery offshore Cote d’Ivoire.

Frontier exploration drilling fell to the lowest level ever recorded by Westwood (since 2008) with only 15 frontier wells completing and only one making a potentially modest-sized commercial discovery. Emerging play exploration was dominated by the Upper Cretaceous play offshore Suriname-Guyana where four discoveries added an additional estimated ~1bnbnoe. High impact drilling in more mature, established plays delivered 13 potentially commercial discoveries and a 43 per cent commercial success rate, however, only seven of these appear to be >100mmboe post-drill.

Westwood confirmed that 72 companies participated in the 74 high impact wells drilled in 2021, with 38 companies participating in only a single well. The most active high impact explorers were ExxonMobil (13 wells), TotalEnergies, Petronas & Shell (nine wells each). Rosneft and BP were the only companies to deliver >1bnboe net, however, due to their exposure to some large discoveries in Russia. Repsol and Eni fell out of the list of most active explorers participating in only three high impact wells each. Both companies have stringent net-zero targets.

High impact exploration drilling by play maturity 2016-2021 and high impact exploration drilling by company; Source: Westwood analysis
High impact exploration drilling discovered resource and commercial success rates 2016-2021
Source: Westwood analysis

As pointed out by Westwood, 2021 showed there was no obvious loss of appetite for high impact exploration at the drill-bit, but the decline in frontier exploration drilling shows that the industry is less concerned with long term renewal and is instead focused on quicker returns.

The outlook for 2022 drilling plans suggests this pattern will continue in 2022 with 70-80 high impact wells expected to complete in the year, a similar level to 2020/21.

Drilling hotspots in 2022

Hot spots for drilling in 2022 will be mostly in South America, particularly in the Suriname-Guyana Basin and offshore Brazil. The Gulf of Mexico will be a hotspot, both offshore U.S. and Mexico, and key wells are also expected in the Flemish Pass offshore Eastern Canada.

After a quiet few years, Africa is expected to see key frontier tests in the Orange, Rio Muni, Mozambique, and Lamu basins. Northwest Europe should see ~10 high-impact wells drilled which is a similar number to 2020, but well down on the 27 high impact tests drilled in 2019. The Middle East may see the largest prospect drilled in the Iranian Caspian Sea.

The combined unrisked predrill resource potential (from wells either drilling or considered firm or probable wells) in 2022 is estimated to be ~30bnboe which Westwood estimates as ~8bnboe on a risked basis.

So, despite the energy transition, the E&P sector has so far maintained the high impact well count. Whether this will continue beyond 2022 is the question. The 2022 exploration programme is dominated by commitment wells on licences acquired prior to 2020. Things may change in 2023 and beyond, as current portfolios are drilled out and if acreage is not renewed in response to energy transition pressures, Westwood concluded.

Related Article

Last week, Westwood gave us its views on the main energy transition trends that oil and gas firms should watch in 2022.

According to Westwood, these include national decarbonisation targets, the effects of geopolitics on energy transition, the question of financing the transition, corporate net-zero targets, the effects of emissions targets on oil and gas investments, low-carbon technology as a key asset for oil and gas players, and pricing volatility in the supply chain.