Sold-out Gulf of Mexico rig market reflects increasing activity for floaters, jackups despite tighter regulations
By Joanne Liou, associate editor
The state of affairs in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) has shifted from recovery mode to a new growth phase, with deepwater activity surpassing pre-Macondo levels. It’s estimated that the moratorium set the GOM back one to two years, but industry has finally achieved a period of bustling activity. “The GOM is back, and it’s probably more active than ever,” Darrell Hollek, Anadarko Petroleum vice president of operations for the GOM, stated. “There has been a lot of success in the Gulf of Mexico. It is on par with Africa and Brazil in terms of active regions in the world.”
Shallow-water activity shares a similar growth trend, supported by a healthy demand for jackups and high oil prices. “The real driver behind this trend is our customers’ shift from drilling historically natural gas wells to now drilling predominately oil and liquid wells,” John Rynd, president and CEO of Hercules Offshore, said. Compounded with the fact that the overall supply of jackups in the GOM is at a low of just 40 units, excluding the rigs expected to leave the region, and natural gas prices remain below $4, customers have “shifted their approach, and it has changed the game.”
Essentially, both floaters and jackups are sold out in the region, pushing dayrates up and leading to longer contract terms. Although impacts on operations, safety and regulations continue to be felt three years after Macondo, activity has certainly rebounded. “The GOM drilling offshore activity today continues to show signs of solid improvement and continues to firm as we move forward,” Greg Lewis, Credit Suisse research analyst, explained. “We’re in a multi-year up cycle in the US GOM across the board – increased drilling, increased production, increased construction. We’re in an expanding period, and we expect that to remain for a couple of years.”
This growth will not be without its own challenges, particularly in terms of “securing the people resources and competencies to manage the projected growth,” Martin Vos, vice president, deepwater wells, at Shell, said. “We need robust processes, equipment and standards, but, most importantly, we need competent people to deliver.” Drilling contractors and operators alike are addressing this challenge through major investments in a competent workforce and newbuild rigs armed with technologies designed for deeper waters and remote locations.
Increasing rig demand
As the GOM market grows, buoyed by new discoveries, lease sales have seen robust industry participation. The US Department of the Interior’s latest lease sale in March, for 38.6 million acres in the Central GOM, received approximately $1.2 billion in high bids for tracts offshore Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. A total of 52 offshore energy companies submitted 407 bids on 320 tracts, covering more than 1.7 million acres.
“The Gulf of Mexico deepwater market is as strong as any right now. The recent Lower Tertiary discoveries reaffirm this region’s excellent prospects, while the Central Gulf Lease Sale in March confirms that operator interest remains very strong,” Rob Saltiel, CEO of Atwood Oceanics, told Drilling Contractor. “However, the Gulf is increasingly becoming a market where only the most modern and capable rigs will thrive due to increasing well complexity and regulatory requirements.” Atwood currently operates one ultra-deepwater semisubmersible, the Atwood Condor, in the GOM for Hess Corp and looks to increase its presence there.
Adding newbuild rigs to the region is very possible. “The Gulf of Mexico is particularly attractive for our new ‘A-Class’ drillships because of the challenges of drilling challenging wells in deepwaters, especially those in the expanding inboard Lower Tertiary play,” Mr Saltiel said. “Operators are focusing today on addressing their rig needs for next year, so the scheduled delivery of the Atwood Achiever in June 2014 positions this rig quite well for these discussions.”
The Atwood Achiever will be the second of Atwood’s three A-Class drillships after the Atwood Advantage, which is scheduled for delivery this year. Each of Atwood’s drillships will offer DP-3 dynamic positioning, 2.5-million-lb hookload main rotary dual derrick, two seven-ram BOPs and capability to drill in water depths up to 12,000 ft and wells to 40,000 ft. Also included are three 100-ton knuckle boom cranes and a 165-ton active heave “tree-running” knuckleboom crane. Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering is constructing Atwood’s ultra-deepwater drillships in South Korea.
Atwood’s third drillship, the Atwood Admiral, is scheduled for delivery in March 2015. “The 200-person accommodations, ample deck space, high-variable deck loads and stout crane assemblies are well-suited for the additional personnel and subsea tree deployment requirements associated with deepwater developments,” Mr Saltiel said.
Maersk Drilling has been active in the GOM since 2009, with one of its first ultra-deepwater semisubmersibles, the Maersk Developer, working for Statoil. Out of four ultra-deepwater drillships the company has under construction, two will be headed for the GOM in 2014 under contracts. “There’s no doubt that the US, being part of the Golden Triangle, has been the biggest market for floaters,” Michael Mortensen, director of Maersk Drilling’s deepwater team, said. “We see a great demand in the future for the US GOM for the next years. There are a number of big developments, big discoveries basically waiting to be developed.” The other two newbuilds do not have announced contracts yet and remain under construction at Samsung Heavy Industries; they are being marketed for the GOM and West Africa, two priority markets for Maersk Drilling.
The GOM has recovered from the challenges of the drilling moratorium following the Macondo incident, and the deepwater rig count is telling. Prior to Macondo, the floating rig count was 38, while today there are 46 rigs, with an additional 13 floating rigs slated for the Gulf in the near future, Mr Saltiel noted. “By some estimates, the floating rig count could increase to 60 rigs over the next two years.”
While the shallow-water rig count is on an increasing trend as well, it is still trailing pre-Macondo levels, where 45 jackups were working compared with today’s 36. Mr Rynd credits the discrepancy to two factors: natural gas prices and the number of active rigs. “Natural gas prices were stronger then, so you had more gas-directed drilling on top of the oil drilling,” he explained, “and there’s just not as many active rigs as before. The market can withstand more jackups in the region. The GOM is somewhat supply-constrained. If there were more jackups that could work, there would be more jackups working. However, given the high cost to mobilize a rig from an international region into the US GOM, coupled with the shorter-term contracts and lower dayrates that are typical of the domestic market, we don’t anticipate an influx of jackups into the region.”
Hercules Offshore currently operates 18 jackups in the GOM, with an additional rig being reactivated that is expected to commence its first contract in early May. The company has plans to potentially reactivate a second jackup; if it is reactivated, Hercules expects it will enter the market in mid-Q4. “We have 10 stacked rigs. Five of them have been held back as potential reactivation candidates, while five will be disposed of in some form or fashion,” Mr Rynd said. He added that he believes market conditions in the GOM are driving the reactivation of stacked fleets due to the low supply number.
Based on contract backlog – the number of days forward rigs are contracted – Mr Rynd believes the GOM is capable of absorbing more jackups. For Hercules Offshore, the company is close to an all-time high, at 228 days of backlog. “If you go back to the previous peak jackup cycle in the GOM in Q4 2007, dayrates were higher, but the backlog was 60 days. Backlog is up almost four times from that period, and dayrates are getting close to the previous peak,” Mr Rynd noted. The increased backlog reduces volatility and creates visibility. “We can look through the rest of 2013 and say we have 80% of our days available contracted. It gives us pricing strength, taking that near-term cyclicality out.”
Assuming that oil prices stay consistently high, Mr Rynd foresees the GOM reaching 40 jackups next year. Business dynamics – the number of property transfers – also is playing role in the outlook for jackups. “Private equity has come back to the GOM shelf in a big way and invested a lot of money with management teams that have experience,” he explained. Such investments are driving the establishment of new oil and gas companies that are buying existing properties or leases. As a result, he explained, Hercules Offshore has more customers today, 35 compared with 23 in 2009.
“With new property transfers, new owners allocate capital, pick up drilling rigs to make a return on investment, and then you have new guys trying to get access to property, and they need rigs,” Mr Rynd said. “It’s very solid.”
Dayrates on the rise
While the average dayrate of Hercules Offshore’s GOM fleet stands at $78,000, the more important number to note is the leading-edge rate, the price of the last fixture. “If the latest rig is at $100,000/day and the one before that is at $77,000, the next price is going to be in the $100,000 range,” Mr Rynd explained. Currently, Hercules Offshore’s highest dayrate exceeds $100,000, and the company foresees moving the fleet in that direction. The company’s average dayrate in the GOM for Q4 2012 was $67,700. “We’ll exit Q1 2013 at around $80,000/day, and then Q2 is going to move higher as our customers continue to re-price.”
Rowan Companies recently contracted its EXL III jackup with Nexen at $160,000/day for 60 days, when the rig was previously earning $140,000/day. The rig commenced operations in February. “Lower-end rigs have pushed pricing close to 40% to 50%, while the premium fleet pricing pushed 15% to 20%,” Credit Suisse’s Mr Lewis stated. “Over the next 12 months, we see pricing push at least another 10% higher. Drilling a well on the shelf costs about $12 million to $15 million.”
Although GOM dayrates tend to be lower than other deepwater markets because of lower operating costs, leading-edge dayrates for modern ultra-deepwater rigs are ranging from the high $500,000s to the low $600,000s in the GOM. “Earning $650,000 in Angola is probably equivalent to earning about $600,000/day in the US,” Mr Lewis said. Dayrates have risen significantly from lows of approximately $450,000 just after the financial crisis. The average cost of a deepwater well in the GOM runs between $90 million and $200 million, according to Credit Suisse.
“With expected demand for ultra-deepwater drilling likely to outstrip rig supply over the next three years, we would not be surprised to see rates rise from current levels,” Mr Saltiel said. “Future rate strengthening will depend primarily on a strong oil price outlook, which requires steady world macroeconomic growth and increasing oil demand in China, India and other fast-growing economies.”
Based on the market outlook, overall utilization levels in the Gulf are expected to remain primarily at the highest level possible. “You will never get to that state where you are seeing 100% utilization because you will always have rigs moving around and going to yards,” Mr Mortensen explained. “If there is a such thing as full utilization, that is probably what we are seeing now.”
Deepwater and ultra-deepwater rigs that enter the market are expected to maintain long-term contracts, keeping utilization firm. “Over the next few years we expect deepwater rig equipment in the US GOM to remain fully utilized” Mr Lewis said. Many drillships under construction will most likely find a home in the GOM, and Mr Lewis expects seven to nine newbuilds to enter the GOM over the next 12 months or so.
With new rigs in the market, some contractors believe that older units may be edged out in the coming years. “Some older and less capable floaters that are currently working in the GOM, even those that were considered state-of-the-art 10 to 15 years ago, will increasingly struggle to compete against the current generation of newbuild drillships,” Mr Saltiel said. “We expect that some floaters working in the GOM could migrate to less technically challenging markets in the next few years.”
The jackup market is also reaping the benefits of high utilization. “In 2012, as utilization started to push higher in the 80s, then mid-80s, that enabled prices to go up,” Mr Lewis said. “Utilization is now in the low-90% range, which provides a lot of opportunity for rig owners to push pricing, as well as length of contracts.”
Permit to drill
The process to obtain a permit to drill undoubtedly has grown more complex over the past few years, posing concerns for both operators and contractors. Numbers show that the trend for permitting is headed in a positive direction but have yet to reach pre-Macondo levels. In 2008, there were 417 development permits, according to Credit Suisse. In both 2009 and 2010, development permits were only 267 in each year, while 2011 saw permitting pick up to 304 and then 381 in 2012. The first quarter of 2013 has already seen 112 permits.
New field exploration permits were much more impacted by Macondo, Mr Lewis stated. In 2008, there were 219 permits, followed by 139 in 2009 and 73 in 2010, with only 11 in the second half of the year. Permits remained low in 2011 with 42 and began to up in 2012 with 100. So far, there have been 19 permits in Q1 2013.
The shift to more deepwater activity in the GOM drilling scene also affects the number of permits. “You can drill a jackup well in 30 days, resulting in 10 to 12 wells per year. In ultra-deepwater, you can only do three to four wells,” Mr Lewis explained. “You’re moving farther offshore, so it’s a lot more capital intensive, working intensive, and permitting data can be misleading.” Overall, offshore E&P capital expenditure increased by about 15% for 2013.
Since it was established, the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) has improved its definition of the criteria used to assess permit requests and increased staff to review well designs and safety measures, Atwood’s Mr Saltiel said. At Anadarko, Mr Hollek said that while he believes there has been some relief in the permitting process, concerns remain about BSEE’s ability to keep up with activity growth. “As more rigs enter the Gulf, can the regulators really keep up with the increased pace of the permits that are going to be needed?” Mr Hollek questioned.
In some cases, permits are being obtained just in time, and impending regulations or additional NTLs are both causes for concerns. “Though safety is absolutely paramount for us, regulatory uncertainty can create a lot of angst with operators,” Mr Hollek said.
Increased maintenance, costs
The positive indications of increased activity, however, are underlined by increased costs, some related to regulations emanating from Macondo. “The requirement that all well control equipment be certified by the OEM at least every five years – even if inspections and measurements were to confirm that the equipment is fully functional – has added to the costs of maintenance and spares requirements,” Mr Saltiel said. Further, zero tolerance for deployed BOP systems not being fully functional with 100% redundancy has led to increased maintenance and testing time between wells and an increasing number of unplanned stack pulls. In very deep waters, each stack pull can lead to as much as two weeks of downtime, he added.
Jason Wilson, project manager for the Center for Offshore Safety (COS), noted that BOPs are now spending longer time periods on the surface for maintenance between wells. “That period is extended potentially by about 30%, which means that although the rigs are active, they’re not being productive.” The decrease in available drilling time means increased costs and decreased operational efficiency.
From an operator’s perspective, Anadarko also believes that downtime associated with additional requirements translates to higher well costs. “It is therefore critical that new regulations truly align with our goals of improved safety, or it is likely to have unintended consequences, Mr Hollek explained. “Given our wells costs generally exceed $100 million, we need to ensure we have responsible rule making, or we ultimately risk pricing the industry out of drilling or being unable to economically develop many prospects, and thus, lead to reduced energy resources for our country.”
As activity picks up for Anadarko, Mr Hollek also foresees the cost of drilling inhibiting some operations. “There is no doubt in my mind that there are going to be some prospects that we look at and say, if the well costs are going up by 25% and we expect this to be only such a size as a prospect, we no longer can drill some of the prospects we have in front of us because we’ve priced ourselves out of the economics.”
Efforts are ongoing within the industry to increase the efficiency of equipment tests. “A lot of work is going into making sure that this new testing is done as efficiently as possible and the equipment is such that you have as few problems as possible,” Charlie Williams, COS executive director, said. Such efforts are likely to impact operations not just within the GOM but around the world, he added, as some operators are applying practices in the GOM as a global requirement.
Growing activity in the GOM is also pushing the industry forward in terms of technology and higher-spec rigs in order to drill in deeper waters and more challenging environments, such as HPHT. “Dealing with these challenges in both exploration and development wells has confirmed the GOM market as a high-end technology market, where high-specification rigs and services and competencies are needed,” Mr Vos of Shell said. The company currently operates seven deepwater floaters and five deepwater platforms in the Gulf, representing more than 50% of Shell’s global deepwater activity. An additional floater will be added to Shell’s fleet in mid-2013.
Investment in high-specification rigs that have the capacity to run heavier and longer casing strings, along with robust well control equipment, is becoming more visible in the region. “With respect to equipment and services for deepwater wells, we expect to see investments in high-end technology solutions and, for equipment, such as subsea equipment for 400°F wells and subsea trees,” Mr Vos said. Companies also are investing in different types of multipurpose vessels to conduct a wide range of operations, such as well interventions, riserless interventions, top-hole drilling, and plug and abandonment activity, he added.
For Anadarko, the company is looking ahead to further increase its capabilities in the GOM. The independent is currently operating five floaters in the region, which is the highest level of activity in the company’s history in the Gulf of Mexico. “We are considering whether to increase our fleet in the GOM, but more importantly, we are currently focused on upgrading our fleet with a number of ultra-deepwater newbuilds,” Mr Hollek said. “We have three newbuild rigs that we’ll bring to the GOM anywhere from Q4 this year through Q3 next year to replace some of our existing rigs.”
The newbuild rigs will feature 2.5-million-lb hookloads, which allows for the handling of larger and longer strings of casing. “A lot of rigs in the Gulf have 1.5 million- to 2 million-lb hookloads, so the newbuilds are going to give us more flexibility,” Mr Hollek said, and the newbuilds will come with two subsea BOP stacks to minimize downtime.
Maersk Drilling’s two rigs entering the GOM in 2014 under contracts with ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips/Marathon are based on the standard Samsung design. The Deepwater Advanced I and Deepwater Advanced II will feature dual derricks for increased redundancy and dual mud systems to ease the switch from one type of mud to another.
“When we ordered the rigs, we put a fair amount of time and investment into enhancing the capabilities, not necessarily changing the overall structure and the capabilities but more ensuring that the system is working reliably in the operations,” Mr Mortensen explained. “We had a lot of focus on redundancy to make the design more efficient and safe.” In terms of the environment and efficiency, the main engines of the vessel also reduce fuel consumption compared with the standard design. Using smaller turbo chargers with improved efficiency and air supply in the low load range, in addition to reconfiguring basic engine settings, has resulted in lower fuel oil consumption in the low load range (40% to 60%), he said.
Opportunities in Mexico
Outside the US, another important area of the GOM lies with Mexico, where opportunities prevail in tough competition. “The market (in Mexico) has not escaped the attention of the rest of the world,” Tom Kellock, offshore rig consultant for IHS, noted in a presentation at an IADC Houston Chapter meeting earlier this year. “You want to establish your position there sooner rather than later.”
In August 2012, PEMEX made its first deepwater crude oil discovery with the Trion-1 well, 110 miles (177 km) off the coast of Tamaulipas, which confirmed the existence of light crude oil deposits in the Perdido Fold Belt province. Prospective resources in the Perdido Area project have been estimated at up to 13 billion barrels of oil equivalent, according to PEMEX’s investor presentation in March. The company has established collaboration agreements with companies, such as Shell, BP, Petrobras and Intec, and in 2012, three of six wells scheduled for drilling were successful, while two are still being drilled and one was unsuccessful.
Companies are keeping a watchful eye on Mexico, and if timing and resources align, might stir into action. “Traditionally, PEMEX has had a lot of focus on shallow-water drilling with jackups but are now focusing on deepwater acreage,” Mr Mortensen of Maersk Drilling said. “We’re following the development, and if the opportunity comes up and if we have the necessary and right capacity, we will look favorably toward the Mexican market.”
In the last decades, Mexico’s market share has shuffled between companies based in Mexico and the rest of the world. In 1990, locally based companies still held 100% of Mexico’s rig market; that number has dropped to approximately 15% by 2005, Mr Kellock explained. “Now it has almost doubled in the last two to three years.” Noble, Ensco and Diamond Offshore all operate jackups offshore Mexico, and Hercules Offshore is paying close attention to the market as well. PEMEX has approximately 38 rigs operating offshore Mexico, with seven more contracted, Mr Rynd of Hercules Offshore noted. “They’re going to be at 45 jackup rigs with a stated goal to be at 52 jackup rigs by Q2 of 2014.”
Mexico-based companies, however, are moving to regain their market share with new jackups. PEMEX itself has ordered two jackups from Keppel, and newcomer Oro Negro has bought two jackups under construction at PPL Shipyard in Singapore and ordered two more, Mr Kellock said. Other companies, such as China Oilfield Services, Romania-based Grup Servicii Petroliere and MENAdrill, also are investing in Mexico’s waters. However, contractors shouldn’t count on opportunities in Mexico, Mr Kellock warned. “Although there are opportunities there, there is increasing competition for those opportunities.