Scotland’s North Sea Oil and Gas workers: the fight for a Just Transition: Part 2 – The Final Storm?

Oil Rig at sea during a storm (iStock).

Climate crises, Covid-19 and a looming global recession: how many more storms can the N Sea oil and gas industry take? In part one of this report, published in April 2020, Brian Parkin looked at the combined impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and a world economic downturn on the UK offshore oil and gas industry. In this brief second paper, he looks at the emerging trends from the second half of 2020 onwards and how the global hydrocarbons sector will face up to a post-Covid-19 world in which renewables may well begin to dictate the shape of energy things to come.

50… and nearly out

The North Sea oil and gas industry, in defiance of many forecasts and expectations, is now 50 years old. At the time of its baptism, governments were obsessed with balance of payments columns as well as the commitment to the post-war social compact of an economy run at levels of full employment. It was also a shared view that with an unshakeable belief in government intervention and technological innovation, things could be done.

Initial interest in UK offshore (North Sea and UK Irish Sea sectors) lay in the deposits of natural gas and the potential for a reliable and long-term resource of energy for, initially, domestic (household) consumers. The growing estimates from c.1970 onwards also promised a resource that could be extended to industrial space heating and manufacturing processes. Regarding oil, it was clear from early chemical analysis that UKCS crude oil was unsuitable for refining into the Heavy Fuel Oil required for power generation, and so the North Sea offered nothing in the way of breaking energy dependency on indigenous coal- and the National Union of Mineworkers.

However, oil from the Forties- and a little later- the Brent fields provided an ideal crude grade suitable for refining into the required range of transport fuels. The value of this asset though, was not appreciated until the global oil shock of 1972, when a largely Arab dominated OPEC punished the Western economies for their alignment with Israel in the Yom Kippur war. 

In terms of petroleum supply security, the North sea has paid off. For the better part of half a century the UK has enjoyed near total security of indigenous supply. Apart from the 1984-85 miners’ strike when the UK government had to fuel the coal- fired power stations with Heavy Fuel Oil- which cannot be refined from North Sea crudes- almost all oil crudes (and distillates for aviation fuel)- have come from the North Sea. And even now, with North Sea oil capacity falling, the UK remains 95% petroleum self-sufficient.

Global oil … passing its prime?

As we have previously noted, all fossil fuels have been under the pressure of a climate consensus to conform to COlimits by reducing production as well as emissions from production operations. The response of the oil and gas companies as well as the OPEC cartel has been- with some success- to lobby governments as well as attempting to massage public opinion away from climate concerns. To these ends they have now failed. But as ever resourceful, the oil – and also gas – interests have been redeploying their considerable financial interest elsewhere – albeit grudgingly. After years of ‘scientific’ misinformation and fake data, the oil and gas industry faces an irreversible shift in both public opinion and scientific consensus.

At 2015 the view of the oil and gas lobby was that demand for petroleum would begin to peak in the early 2030’s – albeit tapering off slowly into the future. But by 2019 the industry had significantly changed its forecasts. Even before the combined whammy of the onset of a world economic turndown and the Covid-19 pandemic, BP, Shell, TotalDNV-GL, the IEA[1] and OPEC[2] had come to the uncomfortable conclusion that oil peak demand had already been reached. Big oil exceptions to this forecast have remained as the US giants, Exxon/Mobil and Chevron, who have both continued to set aside some $30 billion investment capital in further oil exploration and developments[3].

As early as 2016, Shell had established its New Energy Divisiona new venture into renewables generation, high capacity batteries, grid management and hydrogen. This has come at the expense of tar sands investment and shale oil extraction and refining. The company has also undertaken a major restructuring in order to free up capital investment for diversification into non-petroleum activities.

Also in October 2019, BP declared its intention to be a zero-carbon operation by 2030. And, in that year, BP entered into a $1.1 billion joint venture with Equinor Energy for the purpose of becoming a major player in offshore wind power[4]. This was with the expectation of offshore wind appreciating six-fold to 190 Gwe installed by 2030[5]. (But just to get things in proportion, the OECD now estimates that globally there will have to be a $6.3 trillion per annum investment to convert energy systems into renewables in order to meet the 1.5oC climate mitigation target for 2030[6].

The repo-man cometh

With financial data changing almost frantically day by day, it is not easy to reach a reliable estimate of the overall health of the global oil industry. Nevertheless, recent figures show the overall scene against which the North Sea industry fares. But first some raw data:

RankCountryMbpd
1USA15,043
2Saudi Arabia11,800
3Russia10,800
15Norway1,649
21UK940
Oil production million barrels per day (Mbpd) by country 2019[7] (96 producers)

The global daily production for 2019-20 was 80,622,000 bpd of which 68% was produced by the top 10 producers with an overlapping 44% produced by OPEC member states. The average output for the top 3 producers was 11 mbpd. By the beginning of 2020 the same producers had an average output of 12.3 mbpd – a significant overproduction given the emerging market conditions for the year.

With signs of a global economic recession as early as September 2019, it was clear that at 15.043 mbpd, the US was entering 2020 at a significant rate of over-production. The sustained production rate of the previous year began to depress the world traded price of oil to an unsustainably low level for many OPEC+Russia producers – hence the output war of OPEC to depress output in order to increase prices. But within weeks it was clear that such a strategy was failing – hence the output switch to increase production in order to break the back of the relatively high cost US shale oil sector.

But within weeks of this price/output war, the already global markets were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic – with the second week in April seeing the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fall to minus $40 dollars per barrel. After several weeks of price bounces, the world traded price of the Brent and WTI grades settled at just below $35 per barrel. Since then a fitful recovery has seen North Sea Brent begin to trade at around $40 per barrel- a price that barely covers the combined production and development costs of c.$38 pb[8].

Much regarding the likely fortunes of the North Sea oil and gas industry was covered in the first paper[9] but if we want to examine the drive behind the global plight of the hydrocarbon industries, it would be better to look at the biggest producer and consumer of oil and gas- the USA. 

When the bottom of the oil market fell through the floor in 2014 it was the US with some 25% of its oil and gas production from shale ‘plays’ that took the greatest hit. Since then, and not without considerable help from the US Treasury, the US has bounced back to be the biggest hydrocarbon player in the world – and with a Congressional act in 2016, a net exporter of oil and gas into the world market. And prior to the combined recession/Covid crisis, even the shale extraction sector was doing well at an oil price of c.£65 pb.


http://www.sjvgeology.org/history/gushers_world.html

Immediately prior to March 2020 most US producers could break even at a $46> pb price. But in order to kick-start the many needed DUC’s (Developed but Uncompleted wells) required to maintain medium-term production, an additional $6.00 pb was required. Also, at that time it was reckoned that the bullish confidence of the industry was waning with an estimated 66% of oil company CEO’s of the view that 2020 had seen the peak in oil demand coming and going[10]. Consequently, by April the fall in demand in the US had resulted in a 20% excess in capacity with a subsequent registration in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection orders. If we want to measure the historical scale of this default, then the post-2014 crash of 2016 would be a good comparison:

2016 oil bankruptcy debt                   $56.8 bn 

2020 oil bankruptcy to date              $89 bn

Expected 2020 debt                           $134 bn

Furthermore, on the current market estimates it is expected that a further roll-over debt of at least £100 bn can be expected to the end of the 2020-21 financial year. Also, although the number of individual bankruptcies are so far lower, the capital size per company failure is much higher. In 2016 the failures amounted to $56.8 billion. But in 2020 to date the total is $89 billion and is expected to reach $134 billion by the end of the year. And as each company has been debt financed with no failure insurance, it is reckoned that the banks would be lucky to recover 35 cents in the $US in the event of a winding-up order[11].

In conclusion, with no foreseeable growth in oil and gas demand and a totally unstable market deterring future field developments, a ‘self-levelling’ market price of <$40 pb- probably struck by the bigger OPEC members and the dominant oil companies, much of the worlds marginal reserve/high cost capacity will be squeezed out. Certainly, the crash to $35 pb is a price that even the bigger and lower cost producers would find it hard to live with. This much was revealed by the leaked news that OPEC’s leading member Saudi Arabia reckoned that a sustained price of $50 pb would be the most favourable price to 2030 in order to allow margins to cover the cost of future field developments[12].

But whatever, the enduring relationship between US big oil and the military-imperialist project is likely to see the hydrocarbon industry not go out quietly- particularly as the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – and Exxon/Mobil insist on peak oil as far ahead as 2030. But those the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

Beyond the North Sea

The economic viability of oil and gas have always been predicated on the myth that all other sources of energy are uncompetitive and/or only so in the distant future. Petroleum, of course is mainly used as a feed-stock for mainly transport fuels – crude oil for refining into petrol (gasoline) and condensates into diesel and aviation fuels.

And by far the largest contributor today of global COemissions derives from petroleum extracted transport fuels. But sticking with North Sea Brent as refined at Grangemouth (Petrochina) or Total’s Humber refineries we see the following product percentages:

Product% of crude refined[13]
Asphalt       0.7
Residues0.7>
Refinery Fuel1.85>
Liquid Natural Gas4.0
Aviation Fuel9.0
Diesel/Light Oil25.0
Petrochemicals13.0
Petrol45.0
Total Transport Fuels79.0
(It should also be noted that the Ineos plant in the Grangemouth complex processes methane for conversion into a feedstock for plastics manufacture)

Of course the fate of some 4,000 workers and their families at Grangemouth now hang in the balance with the likely demise of hydrocarbons- both as transport fuels and plastic materials.

In April 2020 the OECD anticipated a year in which at least 1 million oil and gas industry workers would lose their jobs – a calculation which must include many thousands of North Sea workers. But there does seem to be a levelling off – possibly due to a convergence of strategic thinking on the part of OPEC and the oil ‘majors’ that a sustainable price of $45 pd could be struck over the next period – a price that would strike out both the higher cost OPEC members as well as other high cost sectors such as US shale[13] and most deep water operations[14].

On the other hand, the anticipated rise in demand for more and more offshore wind capacity – ideal for Scottish waters – along with an expected Compound Annual Growth Rate of matching large scale lithium/ion battery capacity to match incoming wind/wave/tidal and solar units[15].

The future is full of dangers and hope- and if the rage generated by the threatened loss of 20,000 miners jobs in 1984 could the reproduced many times over again in order to demand a Just Transition for the threatened tens of thousands of oil and gas sector workers, then the future is full of hope.

Dr Brian Parkin, Edinburgh, November 2020.




[1] IEA- International Energy Agency

[2] Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries

[3] Oilprice News 10th Sept 2020

[4] Above company information Oilprice News 10th Sept 2020

[5] Bloomberg NFF Oct 2019

[6] OECD annual report 2018

[7] US Energy Information Administration (EIA) 31st March 2019

[8] UK Oil and Gas Sept 2019

[9] Brian Parkin Scot.E3 April 2020

[10] Oilprice News/Bloomberg Feb 12th 2020

[11] All figures Rystad Energy consultants October 20th 2020

[12] Irina Slav Oilprice News 5th October 2020

13] David Messeder, Bloomberg as reported in Oilprice 22nd October 2020

[14] Oilprice/Bloomberg/Wood McKenzie, May 20th as reported in Oilprice 20th May 2020

[15] Wood McKenzie 30th September 2020