OPINION: It was 2006 when Anadarko Petroleum revealed the game-changing Kaskida discovery in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico.
Major promise was seen in the find, later picked up by BP, as engineers concluded it would require equipment rated up to 20,000 pounds per square inch to bring the hydrocarbons to market.
Yet it has taken 13 years for an operator to sanction a deep-water US development requiring 20k kit, with Chevron last week notching that milestone with the final investment decision on the $5.7 billion Anchor project.
Early this decade, 20k discoveries were hailed as the next vast and lucrative frontier in an industry supercharged by high oil prices, an innovative area with potential for a massive new queue of projects and jobs.
Then came the US shale boom and oil price crash of 2014, which put the most complex projects on the back burner.
Major players working on 20k developments were driven out of business or exited assets in the wake of huge sunk costs and it became unclear if any such projects would move forward.
However, in recent years new operators took up the mantle and have quietly progressed plans, with Anchor over the line and Shenandoah and North Platte apparently on the path to final investment decisions.
Operators have shown that 20k projects can compete — but as part of a wider portfolio.
Chevron opted to sanction Anchor as part of a broad set of investments that includes Permian basin and liquefied natural gas projects, and North Platte operator Total is diversified across the globe.
In stark contrast, companies that took a pure-play approach to 20k schemes failed, with investments proving too risky across what became a long-term horizon as the downturn delayed projects.
Cobalt, founded to focus on the play, filed for bankruptcy in 2016 with assets picked up later by the highest bidders.
Venari Resources was another 20k cheerleader but the company apparently closed shop last week, while projects including Anchor and Shenandoah it had long championed finally achieving sanction or approaching the final investment decision without it.
Oil and gas of any type is currently a hard sell to US investors, with offshore projects particularly out of favour.
However, today’s 20k projects are moving even without broad appeal and instead have become a welcome niche investment for some players. Total has said it prefers the US deep-water sector to broad investments in shale and Israel’s Navitas Petroleum has also been keen on 20k.
The 20k projects now moving have also shown they do not need massive production and reserve numbers to work. Developments under way can be called medium-sized, in the 70,000 to 75,000 barrels per day range, while Shenandoah’s resource estimate of 300 million barrels is plenty for an operator such as Llog Expoloration.
Collaboration on technology has also helped. The more duplication can be avoided in technology R&D, the lower costs will be for everyone.
It remains to be seen if Anchor, Shenandoah and North Platte are outliers or whether other projects such as BP’s Tigris and Kaskida will follow.
Who knows if operators will have any appetite left for 20k wildcatting amid stiff competition for funds from other plays and the broad threat to the fossil fuel sector posed by climate change.
Impressive efforts have seen 20k come a long way but only time will tell what the future holds.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)