Slugcatcher debunks expectations of an exploration boom

“RECORD high oil prices will lead to a boom in exploration.” Sounds great, doesn’t it. So good, that Slugcatcher reckons you ought to see it again – “record high oil prices will lead to a boom in exploration.”
Slugcatcher debunks expectations of an exploration boom Slugcatcher debunks expectations of an exploration boom Slugcatcher debunks expectations of an exploration boom Slugcatcher debunks expectations of an exploration boom Slugcatcher debunks expectations of an exploration boom

There - if it’s said twice it must be true – that is unless you believe the results of a survey released this week in the US which could even be pointing to a decline in the number of holes drilled.

How could this be true? Slugcatcher hasn’t the foggiest, but he knows enough about financial markets to not doubt that validity of the study which involved quizzing no less than 327 oil companies about their exploration intentions for 2005.

Lehman Brothers, one of the most respected names in the New York finance world, calculated that oil and gas companies around the world will boost their budgets next year by 5.7%.

Said quickly and 5.7% doesn’t sound too bad. Said slowly and 5.7% starts to look pretty ordinary – especially when measured against this year’s 12.4% increase.

Slugcatcher is not a mathematician but those two numbers appear to point to a slowdown. True, the actual dollar figure will rise to a very impressive $177 billion, but the rate of growth is slowing.

That is the truly astonishing fact coming out of the Lehman survey - oil prices have boomed, profits have never been better, but the rate at which exploration is expanding to catch the high oil prices is declining.

Lots of reasons can be advanced for the slip from a growth rate of 12.4% to 5.7%.

First, this year’s rate of expansion represents a move up from a lower base. Second, Lehman admits that its survey did not include government-owned oil companies in the Middle East.

Third, and this is the deeply worrying point, an increasing amount of the global oil exploration budget is not going into holes in the ground, it is going to meet rising costs associated with rising rig hire rates, and the cost of working in ultradeep water.

There is also a fourth possible reason, worse than the third – a poor rate of success this year means that oil companies could be running out of decent exploration targets.

Slugcatcher is not crying doom and gloom when pointing out these possibilities. He is actually just picking up some of the points made in Petroleum Intelligence Weekly and International Petroleum Finance, two learned journals that reported on the Lehman survey.

The PIW report noted the lack of major discoveries this year, while also pointing out that much of next year’s 5.7% increase would be spent on countering “rising rig rates”, increased government taxes on oil production and “tougher production sharing contracts” in countries such as Kazakhstan and Venezuela.

In other words, every man and his mangy dog is jumping on the oil price boom and sucking out what they can, effectively leaving less for exploration.

On top of that, the commodity price boom is pushing up the price of critical raw materials. PIW estimates that the price of steel used in pipelines has risen by 66% since June.

Which takes us back to the original theme of whether rising prices actually lead to rising levels of exploration.

In theory, that is what should happen. In practice, it certainly doesn’t look that way – which opens up an even more interesting can of worms about future supplies of oil, and the long-term oil price trend, which is definitely up despite the price correction of the past month.

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