Uncertainty over next petroleum acreage release

ONE of the stalwarts of the APPEA Conference was missing in action this year.

Image from Diamond Offshore.

Image from Diamond Offshore.

Geoscience Australia's Tom Bernecker famously takes the main stage during the three-day event to give a detailed rundown of each block put up for bidding by industry from nominations gathered through the year. 

He was nowhere to be seen this year and the event was cancelled without explanation. 

Rumours that the release wouldn't be held at all were swirling at  the  conference this week, with industry insiders telling Energy News they had little confidence it would be held before the end of the year. 

A representative for the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator told attendees at the conference the acreage release was not being held due to delays with policy and general uncertainties including the activist lawsuit which halted drilling at the Barossa project. 

Given the government was in caretaker mode last year pre-election last May the event wasn't held until August, and then virtually, last year. 

In 2020 it was also held virtually given the pandemic halted all in-person events across the world but 42 blocks were up for grabs. This dropped to 21 the following year and like some kind of nuclear half-life to just 10 last year. 

A spokesperson for federal resources minister Madeleine King remained tight-lipped, telling Energy News the minister was still considering the outcomes of the 2021 petroleum acreage release process and would "make decisions in due course." 

The 2021 acreage has still not been awarded even a year after companies submitted bids.

"The 2022 petroleum acreage release process is currently under assessment by the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator," the spokesperson said. 

"The government has been clear that gas will play an important role in the energy transition and our regulatory reforms give certainty to companies and the community about investments in new projects." 

The spokesperson did not confirm whether the acreage release for this year would be held. 

Energy News approached the oil and gas peak body - Australian Petroleum Production Exploration Association - for comment but the organisation opted not to respond. 

In her opening speech at the conference on Tuesday, minister King told the audience there would be a carbon capture and storage acreage release, but failed to mention the petroleum acreage release. 

Energy News approached the Department of Industry for comment but has not heard back. 

One unnamed industry watcher told Energy News they suspected a lack of funds and more attention on offshore carbon capture and storage and offshore wind applications, both of which are overseen by the two offshore petroleum regulation bodies, has meant the acreage release has simply fallen off the radar. 

Another, also speaking off-record, suggested that King's office received an overwhelming number of letters opposing the release and questioning why further petroleum exploration was being encouraged after the government's own new tough climate targets had been received. 

"They are still dealing with the fall out," they said.  

"That was the message that we got. Everything has been delayed and they are trying to find the consequences of another release."

The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority has halted approval of all submitted Environmental Plans after a court case forced a change. 

A full bench of the Federal Court found two Traditional Owner Groups had not been adequately consulted during the EP process for the Barossa offshore gas project now majority owned and operated by Santos. 

New rules on consultation, which draw heavily from the judgment, mean all project proponents may need to carry out more comprehensive stakeholder engagement to ensure they meet the new requirements. 

Lasst week NOPSEMA released a 12 page document on new requirements around stakeholder engagement. 

None of the blocks from the 2022 have been awarded, though blocks for both the 2021 and 2022 rounds have been bid on. There are currently 13 bids with the Joint Authority for decision, but not a single block has been awarded in the past 12 months. 

The JA is the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator and the relevant state government. 

NOPTA's website shows what is in process for varied types of application, such as applications to extend or suspend the work permit for a particular block by an operator but it does not list what blocks are being bid or by whom. 

Exploration situation is "dire" in Australia

Exploration and appraisal spending reached a record in 2013-2014, but after the oil price crash activity plummeted. It has been flat over recent years. 

Last year exploration and appraisal spending was around A$1 billion across both onshore and offshore regimes. 

Onshore spending was just under $600 million, down 17% on 2021. Offshore spending was just under $400 million, roughly the same as the year before. 

"A trend that's coming out of this, is that onshore exploration is attracting more funding expenditure in the last few years, and it's been that way since 2019," RISC Advisory analyst Adam Craig told the APPEA Conference 2023 on Wednesday. 

He compared onshore spending to $4 billion spent on minerals exploration over 2022.

In terms of permitting, exploration tenements awarded to industry are in terminal decline. 

"The only permits that are increasing are retention licences and production licences," Craig noted.

Production licence awards have grown roughly 20% over the last seven years. Retention licences have increased 63%. 

"Areas for exploration licences have decreased 46%, with a decline of 37% in onshore exploration tenements and 64% offshore," Craig said. 

A key theme RISC continues to see is that while there is a decline in exploration permits successfully awarded to industry, there is an increase in spending across the permits granted. 

"Permits awarded is ever declining," Craig said, "

Over 2022 there were four offshore federal acreage awards. Three of those awards were from the 2020 petroleum acreage release and one was from the 2019 round.  

"There have been no awards last year or from the 2021 round which closed in March last year," Craig said. 

"It's been a year since the regulator has had those bids and not one has been awarded." 

In state jurisdictions, successful exploration tenement awards are just as concerning according to RISC. 

There was only one permit awarded onshore in Western Australia. Just three were awarded in South Australia and only five in the coal seam gas province of Queensland.

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