What Does the Future Hold for Hydrocarbon Exploration and Production in the UK North Sea?
Neil Hodgson directs a team of geoscientists at Spectrum working on placing new seismic programmes in the most prospective areas globally. With his extensive experience of the North Sea, we asked him this important question.
So, is the North Sea Finished?
Far from it; actually there is a specific window of real opportunity just now in the North Sea, to use state of the art seismic acquisition to reveal the next generation of fields that will add another 30 years to the productive life of the North Sea. We need both ocean-bottom node (OBN) acquisition in areas where conventional data has been pushed to its limits and found wanting, and the acquisition of new data to chase both new and old plays in previously overlooked areas.
Are there any underexplored plays to work or new plays left to find?
Ask any geoscientist working the basin: there is still plenty we don’t fully understand about the plays we are working. Often the remaining problems are due to seismic resolution – for example, the Jurassic–Triassic pods and diapir flank plays of the Central Graben, beneath the salt walls in the Southern North Sea or at any scale in the sub-salt of the western margins. Big questions also remain around little tested stratigraphic plays in the Northern North Sea (Triassic, and intra-Jurassic) and Southern North Sea (Lower Carboniferous and Permian).
Generations of inspired and super-competent geoscientists have been forced to draw conclusions (models or interpretations) from data that was not a complete vision, but all they had. The truly curious understand that what we know and what we just think we know are separated by a gap where exploration genius and big new plays have been found.
This year has seen record low drilling activity. Why?
The low oil price of 2014–2016 hit North Sea activity hard. However, stability at a moderate to good level has meant that funding for acreage acquisition is back, pre-staging a resurgence of drilling activity in the next few years. However, before activity can get going, we must change the game with new information, which has got to be up to the task. It is fortuitous that 3D acquisition over the more frontier plays, and OBN seismic in the mature basins, are now affordable.
What is needed technically to rejuvenate the area?
The North Sea creaming curve, or more correctly, the multiple play creaming curves inside that, are now limited by the available information. Whilst well data slowly gets released and becomes available as the creative feedstock for seismic interpretation, seismic only improves with reprocessing, or new acquisition by methods that deal with previous barriers to imaging. New information, targeted on old tired ‘moppingup’ plays, will not shift the creaming needle. However, targeting repeatable, material-sized plays with next-generation technology has every chance to re-invent the North Sea.
How can investment be encouraged?
Where there is infrastructure there is opportunity. So here’s the thing – there is a clock ticking on the longevity of facilities, both platforms and pipelines, and in time they will start to disappear. Yet the quality and availability of seismic data in the North Sea is only now able to solve the hardest problems – looking deep, looking more sophisticatedly and looking where data has been scant or misunderstood.
The problem we have to solve isn’t funding new drilling – it’s funding the new seismic data that will de-risk drilling. This is the low hanging ‘elephant in the room’ and the sooner the industry confronts this, the sooner we can stop the ticking clock and drill the juicy bones.
What can the UK government do to help?
It’s already done it. In establishing the Oil and Gas Authority, it has unleashed a creative, integrated and professional organisation that is passionate about promoting and facilitating future exploration in the North Sea. This is the perfect platform. Whilst the Norwegian government’s solution to stimulate exploration may not be open to the UK, creative minds ought to be looking at the huge abandonment costs ahead of the industry, vs a cash neutral risk-play on future exploration upside that is open to government, industry or new private funding.
Every generation has a mission and the current generation must think not what the North Sea can’t do for them, but what new data can do to unlock the future of this great basin.
Further Reading on Oil and Gas Exploration and Production in the UK North Sea
A Golden Celebration for Silver Seas
50 years on from the first oil and gas discoveries in the North Sea we celebrate this golden anniversary by looking back at this important center of oil and gas production, set in silver but often turbulent seas.
This article appeared in Vol. 12, No. 4 - 2015
The First UK Giant Oil Field
The giant Forties Field was discovered in 1970, only the second oil field to be found in the UK North Sea. Originally predicted to run dry by the early 1990, it has now produced 2.64 billion barrels – and is expected to continue for another 20 years.
This article appeared in Vol. 7, No. 3 - 2010