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The Future of the Drilling Industry

25 Mar 2015

Spencer Ogden Drilling

Although the oil and gas industry as a whole has seen significant growth and development over the past decade, the start of 2015 has been a tough period for upstream oil and gas workers – particularly those who work in drilling operations.

The collapse in the price of oil late last year has caused many oilfield services companies, both large and small, to lay off workers in their thousands. Halliburton confirmed in early February that it would cut up to eight percent of its 80,000-strong global workforce. In January, French oilfield services firm Schlumberger said it would cut 9,000 jobs from its operations. Other firms involved in drilling for oil have also announced sizeable job losses; Weatherford International announced plans to lay off 8,000 workers in early February, while Helmerich & Payne stated at the end of January that it would be losing 2,000 jobs.

Research firm Douglas Westwood noted in January that public companies involved in deep-water drilling – such as Transocean, Seadrill, ENSCO and Diamond – have lost more than half their value compared to a year ago. Despite this, Douglas Westwood believes that if oil prices average between $50 and $70 per barrel in 2015, total wells drilled could, in fact, be expected to increase by 17 percent by 2020 with the number of deep-water wells increasing by 32 percent over the same period. 

Well drilling projection

For the moment though, deep-water drilling is generally seeing a slowdown according to Paul Mazalov – Team Leader, Drilling and Completions at recruitment agency Spencer Ogden.

"The market right now is quite slow for the obvious reasons. Generally, the main thing that's ceased is deep-water drilling activity purely for the reason of cost. If you think about it from a cost perspective, companies right now are trying to reduce that. A lot of organizations are finding it very hard just to break even. It costs more money for them to drill and produce oil than they can sell it for," Mazalov says.

Mexico's Pemex and Saudi Aramco, for example, are among a handful of companies that have announced a suspension in some of their deep-water exploration projects.

Mazalov said that a lot of deep-water projects need more than $90 per barrel in order to break even, which means many companies that have invested in such projects "are hurting".

"There are companies that are right now scrambling around to find out what their hottest assets are that are actually making them money and investing more time into those," he says.

"Unfortunately, what that causes from a recruitment perspective is that they have had a lot of underused staff and so they are now moving those staff to the operations where they are needed most.”

Some Regions are Still Doing Well in Spite of the Low Oil Price Environment

The cost of operating drilling rigs is an important factor to bear in mind when considering which oil regions are suffering the most in the current low oil price environment.

"An offshore drilling rig in deep-water in the Gulf of Mexico or West Africa, if it's a good solid semi-submersible rig, might cost a company $1.5 million per day just to run. A jack-up rig might cost only $300,000 to $400,000 but still if the company drills one dry hole it's in trouble," Mazalov says. 

But companies drilling for oil on land in low labour-cost regions can still make a healthy profit. For example, the Middle East is still a hot region at the moment.

"The Middle East is booming. It's full steam ahead due to low labour cost and the vast quantity of resources," Mazalov says.

"The nature of the geology is pretty straightforward and simple in the region and a lot of the wells they drill are vertical, shallow wells. There may be some horizontal wells but they're still shallow, so each well can take just 14-to-20 days to drill, which is very good. And land rigs cost closer to $30,000 per day." The same can be said for Saudi Arabia, which still has a strong looking oil and gas industry despite recent challenges, with the number of drilling rigs set to be employed during the next year at an all-time high. The country also has plans to explore shale deposits in the country, looking primarily for natural gas – with estimates running as high as 600 trillion cubic feet (tcf).

Contrast that to onshore Canada where Mazalov says a lot of oil production can cost as much as $80 per barrel.

"The reason they're struggling right now, is that a lot of what they produce is heavy oil. What they do out there – steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) – to produce it costs a lot of money. And once they get it out, only about eight percent of the barrel might be converted to petrol, which is what makes oil companies most money."

Mazalov's colleague Mike Guo, Spencer Ogden's Regional Manager for Asia Pacific, believes that while AsiaPac cannot be considered "hot" at the moment, it is better off than many other regions because it is the largest jack-up market in the world.

"Because deepwater is suffering from the massive drop in the oil price, we've received more CVs from drillers who work on drillships and semisubs compared to those who work on jack-ups," Guo says, pointing out that a lot of shallow-water drilling is still going on in AsiaPac. 

Opportunities for drilling professionals in a low oil price environment

It is not all doom and gloom for every worker involved in drilling for oil. Some companies have stuck to their guns and will carry on with longstanding plans to develop certain large oilfields and ride out the current market conditions. 

Norway intends to press ahead with development of the Statoil and Lundin Petroleum-led Johan Sverdrup field in its part of the North Sea in spite of the low oil price environment. This is targeted to produce up to 380,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day after phase one production begins in 2019.

Some argue that oil workers with the right skills might also land jobs away from the familiar activity of drilling for oil in mature basins as the industry adapts to the market conditions.

Extended Reach Drilling


There is still a lot of demand for engineering professionals with experience of extended reach drilling (ERD), according to Mazalov. ERD is the directional drilling of very long horizontal wells and it is particularly in demand in parts of the world where oil companies want to access offshore reserves from onshore locations.
"What extended reach drilling allows companies to do is reach reservoirs offshore by drilling onshore and having horizontal wells stretch for miles underneath the ocean floor, therefore eliminating the need for offshore rigs," Mazalov says.

"It's a technology that is up and coming. If you look at places like California, which has only a handful of offshore platforms, they will not allow any more large metal structures in the sea to spoil the view. I work with Occidental and they've got quite large operations at Long Beach, California, where all they have onshore rigs sitting there with extended reach drilling. There are quite a lot of reserves offshore California but for obvious reasons they won't let them stick a rig out there in the ocean."

There is also a lot of demand for ERD drillers from companies involved in Arctic operations. As this aspect of the industry continues to develop, the will be an increased demand for workers with experience in the sector, and operations will gain momentum again.

"If you look at Alaska they can only technically drill offshore for three months per year, which is not a lot of time bearing in mind that an average offshore well takes three-to-six months to drill and complete. So, it doesn't give companies a lot of time to actually mobilise, get a rig out there, set it up, start drilling and then demobilise everything. It's just not possible. So companies operating in Alaska uses ERD as a technique in a lot of their operations." 

Conventional gas

Analysts and industry executives that Rigzone has talked to in recent months believe that energy companies exposed to gas development projects are in better shape than most, particularly if they are located in areas of the world where natural gas is relatively expensive compared to North America and where gas can be easily transported to where it is needed, e.g. Western Europe, North Africa and the Far East.

One such project being developed in the UK at the moment is GDF Suez's Cygnus project in the North Sea's Southern Gas Basin. At peak production this will produce enough gas to meet the demand for nearly 1.5 million homes.

Meanwhile, China has been very keen to increase its use of natural gas and has set a target for 2020 that gas should make up 10 percent of the energy it consumes from a current level of about five percent.
china energy Consumption
Guo says that drilling activity on gas fields in AsiaPac should continue to be strong "because lots of LNG project developments are budgeted, which means they are sufficient funds to support it".

Unconventional gas

The shale gas boom in North America has led to historically low prices for natural gas in that region, which has prompted some companies to look for shale gas opportunities in Europe, Argentina and elsewhere. An expansion in shale gas activity could provide opportunities for drilling professionals who have the necessary skills to work on unconventional gas operations.

In Western Europe only the UK appears to be serious about developing a shale gas industry, with some other countries – such as France – completely ruling out any exploration for shale gas. The number of new jobs that could result from a UK shale gas industry might be as high as 64,000, according to Ernst & Young. Even so, the UK industry is still in its infancy and it faces strong objections and action (legal and otherwise) from the country's environmental lobby.

In Argentina there is a shale gas resource of some 802 tcf of technically-recoverable gas, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The Neuquén province, which contains the Vaca Muerta shale, is already Argentina's most prolific region for conventional natural gas production, contributing a significant proportion of the country's domestic gas demand. This means that the natural gas infrastructure required to transport the Vaca Muerta shale gas to where it is needed in Argentina already exists.

Meanwhile, the economic case for Argentina to exploit its shale gas resources is compelling: the country's energy imports amount to several billion dollars annually, while its high-inflation economy means that it needs to deliver economic stability and a home-grown shale gas industry could play a role in that.

International companies currently active in Argentina include Shell, Total, Petronas, ExxonMobil, Chevron and EOG Resources. Chevron has committed to a $1.2-billion drilling programme in the Vaca Muerta with Argentine national oil company YPF, while EOG Resources is known for employing innovative shale development technologies. Exxon is also involved in drilling for shale gas, announcing in December that a second well it has drilled in Vaca Muerta struck shale gas and oil.

Flexibility could be key to holding onto a drilling job

Drilling professionals looking to stay in the game during a low oil price environment will need to be flexible. They must be prepared to go where the work is, furthering the global nature of the oil and gas industry and the often transient life of its workers. They must also be aware of the potential for a change to their working conditions, such as extended shift patterns. As the industry itself adapts to the current climate, its workers must too, in order to stay at the forefront of change and subsequent growth in the global oil and gas sector.

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